Ford and other carmakers such as BMW AG and Toyota Motor Corp. don’t want to lose the rights they gained in 1999 from the FCC for a system designed to link cars, roadside beacons and traffic lights into a seamless wireless communication web to avoid collisions and heed speed limits.
Yet after nearly two decades, deployments have been few. An Obama administration proposal to mandate the technology in new cars has been left to languish under the deregulatory agenda pursued by President Donald Trump. General Motors introduced the first factory-equipped model, a Cadillac sedan, just two years ago. And in April, Toyota scrapped plans to equip its cars with the systems starting in 2021.
Now even automakers are moving away the original system, and see greater promise in a newer method based on cellular radios -- the system in the F-150 that Ford showed off for the FCC’s Pai. Ford plans to begin equipping all of its U.S. vehicles with the systems starting in 2022.
That is an issue for carmakers as the 1999 allocation of airwaves by the FCC locked them into the system envisioned then. They need new rules to use a cellular system, which is backed by several companies including Ford, Audi AG and gear maker Qualcomm Inc.
Ford, in a statement, said it is “critical” for the FCC to allow the newer, cellular-based method to use the airwaves because it will become the dominant technology to connect vehicles, infrastructure and pedestrians.
Cable providers have pounced, characterizing the currently mandated system as fostering “two decades of stagnation.”
They’ve called for ending carmakers’ exclusive rights to the frequencies at 5.9 GHz and allocating all or most of the band to the Wi-Fi systems that carry web traffic for most cable customers.
Consumer groups' position
Some consumer groups agree. They include the Consumer Federation of America, the American Library Association, Public Knowledge and the Open Technology Institute at New America.
“The best outcome for consumers is to move vehicle safety signaling to a different set of frequencies and allow next generation Wi-Fi to use 5.9 GHz,” Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the Open Technology Institute, said in an email.
Pai controls the FCC’s agenda, and his impatience ushers in a moment of promise -- and peril.
“We could maintain the status quo” but “I am quite skeptical that this is a good idea,” Pai said in a speech last month to a gathering that celebrated the Wi-Fi signals used for connections in hotel lobbies, coffee shops and homes.
Pai said it would take a formal rulemaking to allow greater Wi-Fi use of the swath, or to let automakers exploit the band for the cellular safety system.
Skepticism has arisen within the Trump administration. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao telephoned Pai to urge the FCC not to use its June meeting to commence its consideration of the airwaves, according to one official briefed on the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation wasn’t public.
While Transportation Department officials haven’t advanced the previous administration’s proposed mandate, they want autos to hold onto the airwaves.
“Preserving the spectrum for transportation safety, which can save lives, is probably more important than slightly faster Wi-Fi,” Derek Kan, the Transportation Department’s undersecretary for policy, said in an interview June 3.