Many Frustrated as FCC Rules to Reallocate 5.9 GHz Spectrum Away from Transportation Safety

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously on November 18 to redeploy the majority of the 5.9 GHz band of wireless radio spectrum once reserved for advanced vehicle safety technologies. The decision, hailed by cable companies, has prompted dire warnings from departments of transportation and various transportation safety groups who say road safety and the future of automotive innovation in the U.S. has been severely compromised.

The block of the 5.9 GHz band at issue was designated in 1999 for transportation safety-related use when the FCC set aside 75 megahertz of spectrum for vehicle and infrastructure communications, including Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC). Wednesday’s verdict significantly narrows valuable spectrum in what is recognized as the transportation “Safety Band” by reallocating 45 of the 75 megahertz in the band for other commercial purposes, such as Wi-Fi.

John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group with members including BMW AG, Ford, GM and Toyota Motor Corp, told Bloomberg Technology in an email that the FCC’s move “undeniably impacts road safety and the future of automotive innovation in this country.”

“Not only was most of the 5.9 GHz Safety Spectrum reallocated away from transportation safety, but it also appears that critical issues around harmful interference to Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) operations were not addressed,” Bozzella continued.

But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said minutes before the vote that the long-promised safety network hasn’t materialized. “We can no longer tolerate this inefficient use” of the airwaves, Pai said.

Shailen Bhatt, President and CEO of The Intelligent Transportation Society of America, countered sharply in a press release following the decision. “Chairman Pai’s statement is incorrect – it is corporate interests that are cheering the reallocation of the safety spectrum away from the public interests.”

ITS America is one of dozens of transportation safety organizations that have been sounding the alarm about the implications of this action – including the U.S. Department of Transportation, all state departments of transportation, and many other organizations dedicated to keeping people safe on U.S. roads.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has also been an outspoken critic of reallocating the spectrum. A year ago, she submitted a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking him to keep the 5.9 GHz safety spectrum reserved for possible lifesaving transportation benefits.

“Due to the significant potential vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies have to reduce these societal crises, it is imperative to the Department that the full 75 MHz of the 5.9 GHz Band is preserved for its existing purposes, including transportation safety and other intelligent transportation purposes.”

Transportation safety concerns aside, reassigning the airwaves represents a win for cable providers such as Comcast Corp. that want to use the frequencies to connect with customers’ mobile devices.

The FCC is taking “an important step” toward “improving and expanding broadband service,” NCTA, a Washington-based trade group for cable companies, told Bloomberg Technologies. “It will allow providers quickly to deliver gigabit Wi-Fi speeds to consumers and relieve Wi-Fi congestion.”

Other companies backing the FCC’s plan include Comcast, Broadcom Inc. and Facebook Inc., the FCC said. Facebook lobbied the agency to ensure that users could access the frequencies outdoors as well as indoors.

Steve Cyra is a Fellow and Associate Vice President in the HNTB Corporation’s Transportation Systems Management & Operations/Emerging Mobility practice.

Robert Fischer is President of GTiMA, a Technology and Policy Advisor to Mandli Communications, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.

WisDOT Launches Automated Vehicle Advisory Committee

Connected and Automated Vehicle (CAV) technologies are expected to have a wide-ranging impact on transportation in Wisconsin. To prepare, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) launched the Wisconsin Automated Vehicle External (WAVE) Advisory Committee in September to gather stakeholder input and advice on CAV-related planning priorities, implementation policies, and impacts on the state’s transportation system.

In his opening remarks at the inaugural meeting on September 8 and 9, Secretary of Transportation, Craig Thompson, reflected on the importance of the transportation system, how every aspect of people’s lives are made easier and more enjoyable by a good transportation system, and that the potential impact of CAV technology may be as dramatic as the rise of digital technology.

The purpose of the committee is to “provide a forum consisting of representatives from CAV and transportation-focused organizations, state economic sectors, and the public sector to review CAV issues and to provide input and advice to WisDOT on CAV planning priorities, implementation policies, and impacts on a safe and efficient transportation system,” states the committee’s charter.

Committee member Ray Mandli, President of Mandli Communications Inc., a Madison-based company that supplies high-definition digital maps to automated vehicle companies, is encouraged by WisDOT’s approach to preparing Wisconsin for this technology.

“CAV technology has a tremendous upside, but the safe and equitable deployment of this technology will require good planning and foresight. The WAVE Advisory Committee is a good step in the right direction, convening key stakeholders from the public and private sector to support our DOT as it moves forward in this exciting area.”

Committee members come from the private sector, non-profit groups, various associations, academia, and other government agencies. Each member commits to a two-year term.  The full list of members can be found here.

Topics discussed on September 8 included the state of CAV research at Wisconsin’s universities, as well as private sector CAV research, development and testing domestically and abroad.  Speakers included Dr. David Noyce from the UW-Madison;  Dr. Troy Liu from UW-Milwaukee; Dr. Henry Medeiros from Marquette University; Mr. Josh Fisher from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation; Mr. Robert Fischer (yours truly) from the Society of Automotive Engineers International; and Mr. Brian Scharles from TAPCO.

Discussions on September 9 revolved around federal, regional, and local government perspectives on CAV planning, policy implementation, and regulation.  Speakers included Ms. Sara Bennett from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); Mr. Brad Basten, and Mr. Don Gutkowski, both from WisDOT.

The WAVE committee will build off the progress made in 2017-2018, when WisDOT convened a special committee to recommend a coordinated effort to best advance testing and operation of autonomous and connected vehicles in Wisconsin. The committee was chaired by the WisDOT Secretary and included representatives from the State Legislature, public agencies, law enforcement, auto manufacturers, trucking, motorcycles and other sectors. The final report and other details can be found on the committee’s page.

Minutes for the September WAVE kickoff meeting can be found here.


Robert Fischer is President of GTiMA, a Technology and Policy Advisor to Mandli Communications, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.