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Wi-Fi Expansion Could Threaten Advanced Road Safety Tech

A proposed expansion by the FCC to allow unlicensed devices to use the same frequency used in advanced vehicle communication technologies is drawing major concerns over the potential to destroy the substantial safety benefits.

Facing a possible expansion of unlicensed Wi-Fi frequencies, a coalition comprised of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, several major auto makers, safety advocacy organizations, and transportation officials are fighting to protect the 5.9 GHz band of spectrum previously set aside for advanced vehicle communication systems. Proposed by the FCC, the expansion could allow for a much greater use of unlicensed devices across the same band used in newly developed vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure communication systems, creating interference and destroying much of the new technology’s accident prevention potential.

According to estimates from the US Department of Transportation, these vehicle communication systems have the potential to prevent as much as 80% of all non-impaired vehicle accidents, giving drivers a wealth of information about the road around them and warning them of impending dangers. Data on a vehicle’s speed, location, and direction can be shared across a network of other vehicles, helping to paint a clear picture of otherwise complicated intersections and dangerous blind turns. By sharing their 5.9 GHz frequency with other unlicensed devices however, much of this life saving information could be interrupted.

A study performed by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration determined that this communication technology “could help prevent the majority of types of crashes that typically occur in the real world, such as crashes at intersections or while changing lanes.” The study concluded that “further analysis is required to determine whether and how the identified risk factors can be mitigated...,” and that “While the state-of-the-art of existing and proposed spectrum sharing technologies is advancing at a rapid pace, NTIA recognizes the importance of these bands to the federal agencies…and the transportation industry and the potential risks of introducing a substantial number of new, unlicensed devices into them without proper safeguards.”

In a letter delivered to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the coalition declared that, “We support efforts to identify spectrum that may be utilized to expand Wi-Fi applications. But with over 30,000 deaths on our nation’s roads every year, we also believe it is critical that efforts to open up additional spectrum do not come at the expense of revolutionary life-saving technologies.” Scott Belcher, President and CEO of ITS America added that, “The U.S. Department of Transportation, automakers and high-tech leaders have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop connected vehicle technology based on the availability of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band. We are at the cusp of it becoming reality, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to protect their investment and see this life-saving innovation through to implementation.”

The letter urges the FCC to do their due diligence in evaluating the potential effects of expanding available unlicensed Wi-Fi bands, considering the possibly disastrous ramifications before imposing the expansion plan. “We stand ready to work with the NTIA, the wireless industry, and other federal and non-federal stakeholders to evaluate the feasibility of existing, modified, proposed and new spectrum-sharing technologies and approaches. However, this process should be allowed to proceed without a predetermination by the FCC that spectrum sharing in the 5.9 GHz should be the ultimate outcome.”

The FCC’s proposition, announced at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is set to be formally discussed in a Commission meeting later this month. If implemented, the expansion could be a significant setback to next generation safety technology, though the outpouring of dissent seems to indicate that the proposed plan will likely be altered to protect the 5.9 GHz band. Accident avoidance technologies have become a major focus for auto makers in recent years, and as their capabilities have increased, incorporating them into the real world has become much more complicated. Only though broader coordination with the federal government, the high tech industry, and safety organizations can a compromise be reached.

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