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Wi-Fi to get 5G airwaves boost as carmakers lose choice spectrum

The change, set for a vote at the FCC in Washington, follows years of rearguard lobbying by carmakers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. to retain their exclusive hold on the rich airwaves swath they were allotted in 1999.

5G
5G (REUTERS)

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is poised to vote Wednesday to let wireless devices use airwaves assigned 21 years ago for a vehicle safety system that hasn’t come to fruition, rejecting carmakers’ efforts to hold onto the frequencies.

The change, set for a vote at the FCC in Washington, follows years of rearguard lobbying by carmakers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. to retain their exclusive hold on the rich airwaves swath they were allotted in 1999.

Since then a new wireless era has arrived, with surging demand for frequencies from mobile phones and other devices that connect over Wi-Fi. In response the FCC has moved to open airwaves to new uses. Those at issue in Wednesday’s vote are suited to new 5G technologies that promise connected factories and homes via ultra-fast links. The FCC would let billions of Wi-Fi devices use frequencies once destined for use by pickup trucks and Cadillac sedans linked to roadside gadgets.

Also read: Global 5G consumer market seen at USD 31 trillion by 2030: Ericsson report

“Americans increasingly rely on Wi-Fi for everything from doing their jobs to accessing health care and education,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in an Oct. 27 blog post. Allowing more uses of the swath assigned to vehicles can help boost fast internet connections “in homes, schools, small businesses, and health care facilities,” Pai said.

Automakers tried to avoid the loss of the spectrum by proposing to enable “talking cars” quicker with the installation of at least five million so-called vehicle-to-everything radios on vehicles and roadside infrastructure over the next five years.

The FCC’s move “would jeopardize roadway safety and U.S. leadership regarding automotive safety technologies,” said John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group with members including BMW AG, Ford, GM and Toyota Motor Corp.

Other countries are adding airwaves for connected vehicle technologies, and “the U.S. is alone in seeking to reduce the spectrum available for this next-generation of road safety advancements,” Bozzella said in an email.

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. They promise gigabit speeds, or very fast connections.

The FCC’s proposed action “is an important step” toward “improving and expanding broadband service,” NCTA, a Washington-based trade group for cable companies, said in a Nov. 10 filing. “It will allow providers quickly to deliver gigabit Wi-Fi speeds to consumers and relieve Wi-Fi congestion.”

Also read: Ericsson takes issue with Swedish ban on Huawei

The frequencies could play host to fast communications including machine-to-machine links, and smart city applications such as connected cameras, traffic monitoring and security sensors, NCTA said in a filing.

U.S. households increasingly are using Wi-Fi to connect to the internet, and demand is growing, the FCC said in its order prepared for Wednesday’s vote.

The coronavirus pandemic has boosted reliance on Wi-Fi as more households are turning to distance learning, teleworking, and social networking, the agency said. Companies reporting increased instances of mobile devices using Wi-Fi rather than traditional airwaves include AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., according to the FCC’s order.

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

FCC Versus DOT

AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile Inc. in filings told the FCC it should retain the entire airwaves swath for use by automotive safety.

Pai brushed aside objections from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who said reassigning the airwaves risks throttling ongoing efforts to build wireless safety systems that could help prevent vehicle crashes.

The FCC has “ignored or rejected” comments from the Transportation Department, Chao said in an Oct. 15 letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department arm that referees federal airwaves uses.

The FCC proposal calls for devoting most of the auto-safety airwaves to broadband uses including Wi-Fi for routers. The remainder of the swath goes to a new cellular connected-vehicle technology. The agency decided against retaining a sliver for the legacy safety system. That system “has barely been deployed, meaning this spectrum has been largely unused,” the FCC said in its proposed order.

Written by Todd Shields and Keith Laing.

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