Spectrum Allocation and the Future of Vehicle Safety

Spectrum Allocation and the Future of Vehicle Safety
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The 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings is fast approaching. The magnitude of that accomplishment, and the comparatively unsophisticated technologies available to make it happen, serves as a reminder of just how much life has changed since July 20, 1969.  But while technologies have evolved, the electromagnetic spectrum has not. Spectrum is, and will remain, a scarce resource desired by many and held by few, be it for rockets to the moon, the phones in our pockets, or cars on the road.

Demand for spectrum has led to the development and introduction of technologies to squeeze more use out of spectrum, but when looking to allocate (or reallocate) the finite electromagnetic spectrum, spectrum efficiency must be the driving force behind spectrum policy. Nowhere is this more true than in the context of connected vehicles, where a renewed debate is underway about the disposition of the “Intelligent Transportation System” (ITS) band.  

In 1999, the FCC allocated 75 MHz of bandwidth in the 5.9 GHz spectrum to support a new vehicular safety technology fresh off the drawing boards at the end of the 20th Century. At the time, the technology, known as “Dedicated Short Range Communications” or “DSRC,” offered hitherto unimagined safety benefits. DSRC-equipped vehicles would communicate with one another to relieve traffic, reduce accidents, and promote efficiency within the fleet. But, DSRC’s promise was premised on the development and subsequent widespread adoption of the technology throughout the nation’s roughly 270 million strong vehicle fleet. 20 years since the spectrum was designated for ITS purposes - to promote vehicle safety - the benefits of the spectrum grant remain under-realized.

To that end, the RAND corporation completed a study in 2018 to examine the exact manner and extent of the ITS band’s use, as well as to evaluate the success of DSRC, specifically. That study found that, for whatever reason, the 5.9 GHz spectrum lies nearly fallow. Likewise, the adoption of DSRC technologies among vehicle manufacturers has been neither uniform nor extensive. Put in terms of dollars and cents, RAND estimated that the current use of the ITS band has a market value of a mere $6.2 million. Remarkably, RAND also found that, were the ITS band to be opened up for use on an unlicensed basis, there would be a total economic welfare gain of over $100 billion.

These numbers suggest that, in bare economic terms, the ITS band should be reallocated for more economically productive purposes either as unlicensed or relicensed spectrum. But, of course, vehicle safety concerns, which were the animating policy concern behind the allocation of the ITS band in the first place, have not gone away. In the United States, tens of thousands of people are killed every year in vehicle collisions, and many more are injured. Preserving room for novel technologies to be developed, adopted, and deployed in large numbers is vital.

Fortunately, new, more sophisticated, and more spectrum-efficient technologies are coming online. Technologies like Cellular-Vehicle-To-Everything (C-V2X) show promise and need far less spectrum (maybe as little as 10 MHz) than the full 75 MHz of spectrum allocated today.

To that end, because the ITS band’s initial grant from FCC is so narrowly tailored to DSRC, the time has come for the FCC and the DOT to work together to tackle both problems - inefficient spectrum allocation and vehicle safety - as one. That means opening up a proceeding to evaluate the disposition of the ITS band, how it should be efficiently allocated moving forward, and how novel vehicle safety technologies can continue to have room to flourish.

In the long-term, given the arrival of new vehicle safety technologies, only a new FCC proceeding and disposition will be able to reduce the regulatory uncertainty which is currently giving firms pause as they consider investing in such technologies. In that way, in no uncertain terms, vehicle safety in the future is inextricably tied to FCC action today.

Ultimately, the FCC could craft a win-win solution in which the purpose of the ITS band (intra and inter-vehicle safety communications) is preserved and liberated from its uncertainty-producing relationship to DSRC, while still freeing up mid-band spectrum for 5G or other ubiquitous wireless networks that need additional spectrum.

Ian Adams is TechFreedom’s Vice President of Policy, his research focuses on automation and transportation issues. James Dunstan is TechFreedom’s General Counsel and is a veteran of the telecommunications bar.

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