Deal reached on testing wireless spectrum sharing

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Detroit — U.S. Senate leaders said Thursday they have reached a deal with industry groups to allow for testing of sharing a valuable part of the wireless spectrum between automakers and the wireless industry.

Commerce Committee Chair Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and the two sponsors of a bill to open the spectrum to wireless devices that’s reserved for automakers said they have a "consensus path forward for determining the feasibility of sharing the valuable spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band to provide more spectrum for unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi.”

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., in February reintroduced legislation to open the 5.9 GHz band to new uses — they also back the deal.

“There is broad support from interested parties, including the undersigned, for conducting tests that are fairly administered and can determine whether various sharing proposals do or do not cause harmful interference to incumbents, including primary incumbent satellite services operating in the 5.9 GHz band,” wrote Thune, Booker, and Rubio in a joint letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“The demand for spectrum resources continues to expand, requiring the federal government to work harder to find ways to utilize limited spectrum resources more effectively and efficiently. At the same time, new technologies hold tremendous promise for improving vehicle safety and significantly reducing the number of accidents and fatalities.”

In 1999, the FCC allocated 75 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for intelligent transportation services to improve highway safety and efficiency as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation's "Intelligent Transportation Systems."

The plan has been backed by Click the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, Intelsat, National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Qualcomm, and SES.

The announcement comes as the FCC has been considering narrowing part of the wireless spectrum now reserved for cars to "talk" to each other; that space would expand wireless connectivity for electronic gadgets.

The technology — which involves cars repeatedly sending wireless signals to each other — could help alert cars if an oncoming vehicle is about to disregard a stop sign. It can detect threats from hundreds of yards away and tell drivers if they can pass safely or make a left turn.

Foxx in May announced a plan to send the proposed regulation to the White House Office of Management and Budget by the end of the year.

Foxx's proposal came after more than a year of testing in Ann Arbor involving nearly 3,000 vehicles in the largest-ever road test of the safety feature.

In February 2014, Foxx said the Transportation Department planned to propose requiring all new cars and trucks to eventually communicate with one another, which could one day help reduce up to 80 percent of crash deaths. He said it would be unveiled by January 2017. Under the faster timetable, the administration could complete a final regulation before President Barack Obama leaves office in early 2017.

NHTSA said the technology could one day prevent nearly 600,000 left-turn and intersection crashes and save about 1,100 lives annually.

Last year, General Motors said it would offer vehicle-to-vehicle technologies starting with the 2017 Cadillac CTS that will go on sale late next year.

"A tide of innovation has invigorated the global auto industry, and we are taking these giant leaps forward to remain a leader of new technology," GM CEO Mary Barra said. "We are not doing this for the sake of the technology itself. We're doing it because it's what customers around the world want. Through technology and innovation, we will make driving safer."

The FCC allocated use of the 5.9 GHz spectrum to intelligent transportation systems. But in 2013 it voted to move toward opening part of the spectrum to wireless devices, but it isn't yet final.

The FCC said wireless traffic is booming. It is estimated that 775 million wireless devices will be used by Americans in 2017.

When the FCC first allocated unlicensed spectrum in the 1980s, it was used mostly for cordless phones, baby monitors and garage-door openers.

"We don't want a mom driving a car down the road with kids in the back seat, and because she happens to be driving by a coffee shop that's using Wi-Fi, her collision-avoidance system turns off," said John Kenney, principal research manager at the Toyota Info Technology Center in California, said in 2013 testimony before Congress.