FCC Wi-Fi Expansion May Threaten Connected Vehicles

Transportation stakeholders are urging the FCC to slow plans that could undermine much anticipated technology that can help drivers avoid crashes.

Last Updated Feb. 21, 2013

State transportation officials and other stakeholders are urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to slow down on a plan that would improve Wi-Fi but could threaten much-anticipated technology that can help drivers avoid crashes.

On Wednesday, the FCC took its latest step toward increasing Wi-Fi speeds by issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking that outlines its intent to free up more space in the broadcast spectrum for users of devices like tablets and computers. The effect would be faster, more reliable connection speeds, especially in busy places like airports and convention centers.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski originally announced the plans last month.

But the move has rattled some in the transportation community, who think it could be a blow to a technological effort they've been pursuing for years.

The issue revolves around part of the broadcast spectrum -- the 5.9 GHz band, to be exact -- that the transportation community is using to develop so-called connected vehicles technology, which allows automobiles on the road to wirelessly communicate their position to one another so they can warn drivers of potential collisions. The federal government created a pilot program to study the technology last summer.

Hypothetically, if you’re driving and there’s someone cruising in your blind spot, that vehicle would send a signal to your own car that conveys its position. Inside your car, a radio would receive that signal and then prompt a flashing light or sound to warn you not to change lanes. Experts say the technology could help drivers prevent many types of accidents, including rear-end collisions and T-bone crashes.

The technology has been hailed as a way to save thousands of lives every year. But now, many in the transportation community say the more than decade of work that's gone into developing connected vehicles technology could be in jeopardy.

The problem, transportation officials say, is that part of the spectrum being considered for the expansion is the same 5.9 GHz band that connected vehicles would use to communicate with each other. About nine years ago, the FCC designated the 5.9 GHz band for vehicle safety applications. Transportation stakeholders are concerned that if other devices are using the 5.9 GHz band, they could crowd out connected vehicle signals, rendering the technology unusable.

In a letter being sent to the FCC earlier this month, several stakeholder groups led by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) are urging the agency to slow down and allow the issue to be fully studied before moving forward with a Wi-Fi expansion that might impact the 5.9 GHz band. They're also asking the FCC not to supersede any U.S. Department of Transportation decisions related to the technology. 

ITSA CEO Scott Belcher says it's possible that connected vehicles and Wi-Fi users could actually share the same spectrum space -- but that won't be known without more study by the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The letter has been signed by a wide range of stakeholders, including the American Automobile Association; departments of transportation in California, Michigan, Texas and Washington state; infrastructure firms like Parsons Brinckerhoff; and several automakers -- Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Hyundai-Kia, to name a few.

The FCC did not respond to Governing's questions about how Wi-Fi expansion would impact connected vehicles efforts. But in a statement issued this Wednesday, Genachowski did not show signs of slowing down. He said that while the 5.9 GHz band is already used for other purposes and the Wi-Fi expansion would require consultation with stakeholders, "consultation can’t be an excuse for inaction or delay."

Late this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is scheduled to use the information learned from the connected vehicles pilot to decide how to proceed. It could wind up mandating the technology in new vehicles. 

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, said it would be unwise of the FCC to jeopardize the future of the technology when it's come so far.

"When you start talking about connected cars, people think of the Jetsons and say 'that's crazy,'" Steudle explained. "But we know it's close to reality."

NHTSA would be unlikely to mandate the use of the technology if there's any chance it could be impacted by greater Wi-Fi users, which is why it's imperative that the issue be looked at thoroughly before moving forward, Belcher says. "If there's any likelihood or concern that safety can be put at risk by some kid streaming video in the backseat," Belcher says, "it's over."

Communications manager for the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute