DSRC – a big fight over an invisible resource

December 3, 2019

John Bendel

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Big changes could be coming to highway safety technology. You probably won’t notice, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

The fact is much of big tech and big media are lined up against safety groups and many vehicle manufacturers in a fight that could have serious consequences on U.S. highways of the future.

On Dec. 12, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a notice of proposed rulemaking. The subject is a slice of wireless spectrum, 75-megahertz worth in the 5.9 gigahertz band, reserved exclusively for something called “dedicated short-range communications,” or DSRC. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to free up at least some of that spectrum for other uses.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to use part of the DSRC wireless spectrum reserved for vehicle connectivity in a future traffic system for other purposes.

DSRC is a wireless safety system that connects vehicles to roadside safety devices and to each other. It looks beyond what current onboard cameras and sensors can see. DSRC will alert drivers and autonomous vehicles to what’s around the corner and much more. It’s the cornerstone of a future traffic system, maybe driverless and hopefully crash-free.

The FCC reserved that 75-megahertz swath of spectrum for highway safety use in 1999. Since then, little has happened. There have been tests and more tests. Automakers have made some cars DSRC-ready. But all these years later, it’s not being used in a significant way.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen a virtual explosion of wireless technologies that have upended commerce and society. Cellphone makers, media companies and entrepreneurs want more spectrum to deploy them. Naturally, when they look at what’s out there, they see 75 megahertz of spectrum looking real pretty and dancing alone in the 5.9 gigahertz band. They want to come to the dance.

For years these folks have lobbied government to reconsider the use – or disuse – of the DRSC spectrum. There are lots of ideas for it, including at least one challenger to DSCR.

In 2017, Qualcomm announced its cellular V2X technology. V2X means communication between vehicles on one hand and other vehicles as well other safety devices on the other or connected-vehicle-to-everything. Qualcomm’s system would use part of the 5.9 GHz band. Ford announced it would install cellular V2X technology in all new cars beginning in 2023. Qualcomm is seeking a waiver from the FCC to use a portion of the band for its system.

“Twenty years is a lifetime in the wireless industry,” said one Qualcommm executive, “We have invented and invented and invented better technology during those 20 years.”

He has a point. The year 1999 was one year before the detailed GPS we know today was available commercially, four years before Qualcomm made enhanced GPS practical for cellphones, seven years before Apple’s iPhone, and just as WiFi was coming into use. If DSCR was a newborn in 1999, it would be finishing college about now.

But freeing that spectrum for other uses would be a mistake say DSRC supporters, including most – but not all – automakers, highway safety groups, and the American Trucking Associations for starters.

They argue we are on the cusp of real-world deployment and that DSRC spectrum is essential for future safety. It is proven technology, they say. Sharing any of the spectrum with users like Wi-Fi, routers, fitness trackers and baby monitors risks interference with critical signals. Consequences could be deadly.

DSRC supporters say if Chairman Pai has his way, the valuable spectrum will be used for applications having nothing to do with safety.

They claim Pai’s proposal would end a number of DSRC technologies currently in development that require the entire bandwidth.

“These revolutionary technologies are coming online now. Reducing or eliminating the 5.9 GHz spectrum allocation would risk chilling innovation and stranding investment, which would deny safety benefits to consumers and harm the public interest,” the electronics company Panasonic said in FCC filing.

They have a point too.

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John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.