An illustration depicting V2X, or vehicle-to-everything communication

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday to push a plan forward that would take away several channels of airwaves from automakers and local governments that have been planning to build out a communication network for cars and surrounding smart infrastructure.

The 5-0 commission vote indicated how much ground the auto industry has lost in protecting the airwaves that have been reserved since 1999 as a so-called safety spectrum. The industry and some state and local governments have been counting on it to deliver vehicle-to-everything communications, or V2X, that could improve safety and also help in the development of self-driving-car technology.

The commission will collect and analyze public comments over the next several months before any plan becomes final. But the comments of the commissioners and FCC staff left little doubt about the direction the agency is moving in.  

The FCC plan would all but kill an approach to V2X that relies on short-range radio, called DSRC, that has been deployed by local governments at some 100 test sites around the country, safety advocates say. That could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded local investments into smart traffic lights and other smart road technology would be wasted, according to state officials.

More on Car Safety

The FCC plan would divide 75 MHz of the safety spectrum between WiFi and auto safety applications. The FCC proposal allocates 20 MHz for a newer V2X technology, known as C-V2X, and leaves 10 MHz for either C-V2X or DSRC.

Some automakers, the Department of Transportation, many state and local governments, and other safety groups remain opposed to the FCC plan to break up the spectrum.

“The pending action by the FCC risks lives, slows innovation and runs counter to what the commission has heard from safety and technical experts,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers said in a joint statement Thursday. “The FCC must consider the significant investment of public and private dollars in V2X deployments and the adverse economic and safety consequences of reallocating the 5.9 GHz safety spectrum to unlicensed technologies.”

Consumer Reports does not support one technology over another and wants the best proven technology in use as soon as possible, so it can save lives. CR believes the short-range-radio approach, or DSRC, is proven. Previously, CR has supported a mandate from the DOT to require DSRC transmitters in cars.

Commissioners Tout WiFi Economy

All five FCC commissioners spoke about the vast economic potential of more airwaves dedicated to WiFi, and said not enough had happened with the V2X technology to continue to set aside so much spectrum for its exclusive use.

Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said some opponents of the FCC plan might say the move puts vehicle safety in jeopardy or will lead to increased fatalities.

“That is pure gibberish,” O’Rielly said at the hearing. “Everyone on this dais wants our families, friends, neighbors, countrymen, and countrywomen to be safe when traveling in motor vehicles. DSRC hasn’t come anywhere close to fruition.”

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said other countries were dedicating less than 75 MHz to V2X applications, and the 10 MHz that could be available for DSRC in the FCC plan matches what Japan is doing.

The economic value of WiFi is expected to double by 2023 to more than $1 trillion, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican. DSRC hasn’t developed as planned, while WiFi is an economic driver that is running out of bandwidth, he said.

“WiFi is a staple of everyday life,” Pai said. “It’s the fabric that ties together all of our devices. Having more spectrum here is essential.”  

Salt Lake City bus in traffic.
A bus travels in traffic in Salt Lake City, one of the areas with a DSRC project that officials have been hoping to expand.