Connected-Car System Should Give Way to WiFi, Cable Lobbying Group Argues

Some of the biggest cable companies in the US want the government to reassign radio frequencies now devoted to Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC), claiming the vehicle-to-vehicle wireless technology is a failure.

In an October 16 letter to the Federal Communications Commission, the cable operators’ group, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, wrote that the auto industry had its chance to use the 5.9GHz band and didn’t take it. Now the spectrum could help make WiFi faster and less congested, so it should be turned into an unlicensed band, the group notes.

Comcast, Cox Communications and other cable operators belong to NCTA.

WiFi is so popular that it needs more unlicensed frequencies to accommodate all users, and 5.9GHz is a perfect place for this because it’s right next to a band WiFi already uses, NCTA notes. Putting those bands together would allow for wider channels and faster connections. Carmakers should adopt a newer technology called cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X), which would run on cellular frequencies, according to the letter.

The federal government set aside 75MHz of spectrum in the 5.9GHz band in 1999 so the auto industry could implement wireless communication among vehicles and between cars and roadside infrastructure such as traffic-light systems.

DSRC is designed to let cars communicate directly with one another to improve safety and reduce traffic jams. Among other things, it could allow two cars approaching a blind intersection to signal each other, preventing a collision if one is about to run a red light. Wireless messaging could also notify cars of slow or stopped traffic ahead so they don’t jam up or run into each other.

But despite numerous tests and trials, it’s still not widely used, though Cadillac includes DSRC in some cars and some manufacturers, such as Toyota, have said they plan to deploy it in many models over the next few years.

That’s not enough for NCTA.

“The country can no longer afford to hold 75MHz of optimal spectrum in reserve with the hope that the next twenty years will somehow be different than the last two decades of stagnation,” wrote Rick Chessen, NCTA’s chief legal officer, in the letter to the FCC.

The Auto Alliance, which includes most of the car brands in the US market, disagreed.

“Automakers support preserving the 5.9GHz spectrum band for transportation safety applications intended to prevent crashes and save lives,” the group said in a statement sent to TU Automotive. “This technology is being developed and already deployed in some cars on the road today, and according to [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] has the potential to reduce up to 79 percent of crashes. Any unlicensed use in the 5.9 GHz band should not be permitted unless it is proven it will not cause harmful interference to these safety systems.”

WiFi and DSRC are actually cousins, both based on the IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standard. Outside the US, related systems such as WLANp are starting to catch on. Volkswagen Group announced in July it would include WLANp in all its new cars in Europe next year. In addition, some countries outside the US also have set aside 5.9GHz spectrum for car communications.

But C-V2X is starting to gain supporters. It uses cellular radios, even though it can be used strictly between cars without connecting to a broader cell network. Because it’s designed to work with 5G, it could take advantage of performance improvements and economies of scale, backers say. Next Generation Mobile Networks, a global group that includes many top mobile operators, said earlier this year that its tests showed C-V2X had longer range and other key advantages over DSRC.

The success of WiFi and the rapid development of new mobile devices has boosted enthusiasm for unlicensed spectrum that any device can use as long as it doesn’t unfairly dominate the airwaves. While the US Department of Transportation still supports reserving 5.9GHz for automotive wireless, its officials say they won’t pick winners among technologies.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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