FCC takes spectrum from auto industry in plan to “supersize” Wi-Fi

By | November 18, 2020
A wireless router seen near a woman using a laptop.

The Federal Communications Commission today voted to add 45MHz of spectrum to Wi-Fi in a slightly controversial decision that takes the spectrum away from a little-used automobile-safety technology.

The spectrum from 5.850GHz to 5.925GHz has, for about 20 years, been set aside for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications service that’s supposed to warn drivers of dangers on the road. But as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today said, “99.9943 percent of the 274 million registered vehicles on the road in the United States still don’t have DSRC on-board units.” Only 15,506 vehicles have been equipped with the technology, he said.

In today’s decision, the FCC split the spectrum band and reallocated part of it to Wi-Fi and part of it to a newer vehicle technology. The lower 45MHz from 5.850GHz to 5.895GHz will be allocated to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed services.

“This spectrum’s impact will be further amplified by the fact that it is adjacent to an existing Wi-Fi band which, when combined with the 45MHz made available today, will support cutting-edge broadband applications,” the FCC said. “These high-throughput channels—up to 160 megahertz wide—will enable gigabit Wi-Fi connectivity for schools, hospitals, small businesses, and other consumers.”

“Full-power indoor unlicensed operations” are authorized immediately, while “outdoor unlicensed use” will be allowed “on a coordinated basis under certain circumstances,” the FCC said. The FCC ordered DSRC services to vacate the lower 45MHz within one year.

The other 30MHz currently allocated to DSRC is being set aside for a newer vehicle-safety technology called Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X). “Today’s action therefore begins the transition away from DSRC services—which are incompatible with C-V2X—to hasten the actual deployment of ITS [Intelligent Transportation Systems] services that will improve automotive safety,” the FCC said.

The FCC still has to finalize technical rules for outdoor unlicensed operations on the lower 45MHz and for how to transition the upper 30MHz from DSRC to C-V2X.

Controversy related to Trump/Biden transition

The spectrum action had bipartisan support but was somewhat controversial because of its timing. Congressional Democrats last week urged Pai to “immediately stop work on all partisan, controversial items” in recognition of Joe Biden’s election victory over President Donald Trump. That would follow past practice in which the FCC works only on consensus and administrative matters in the period between an election and inauguration when control of the White House switches from Republicans to Democrats or vice versa.

Pai has not publicly committed to stopping work on controversial items. But the spectrum decision is less controversial than many other FCC actions. The spectrum change is supported by all five FCC commissioners, both Republicans and Democrats. But the two Democratic commissioners voted to “concur” instead of approving outright, saying the FCC should have waited longer in order to settle disputes with other federal agencies.

US Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) yesterday urged Pai to hold off, saying the proposal “does not adequately address the myriad issues raised by stakeholders, especially those raised by other federal agencies like the Department of Transportation (DOT).”

“Further, with the upcoming change in Administration and FCC leadership, your agency should not move forward on complex and controversial items in which the new Congress and new Administration will have an interest,” Cantwell wrote, arguing that the FCC should “work with the Department of Transportation and affected stakeholders to resolve their concerns before finalizing a rule that could have a significant and harmful impact on transportation safety.”


FCC Democrats Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks both said at today’s meeting that the FCC should have abided by Cantwell’s request. Rosenworcel called it “regrettable” that the decision has “less than unanimous support from our federal partners.” Starks said it “is exasperating that once again, different agencies in the same administration can’t get on the same page.”

“We should have taken more time to clear this up, just as we have been asked to do by the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, and for this reason, I will concur,” Rosenworcel said.

The DOT wrote to Pai on November 6, arguing that 30MHz isn’t enough for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications, and that the FCC is prematurely declaring that C-V2X will replace DSRC:

FCC is compounding the harm to V2X by choosing to cast aside Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC), a proven technology that has already been deployed in vehicles and infrastructure across the country, and to adopt cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) as the sole permissible technology to support V2X applications.

Other opponents of the plan include the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Car 2 Car Communication Consortium (Car 2 Car), and Toyota. These entities “generally contend that all 75 megahertz is needed for ITS,” the FCC said. But Pai said that only 20MHz of the 5.9GHz band is currently dedicated to safety applications.

Spectrum will “supersize Wi-Fi”

Despite objections, the spectrum reallocation has a lot of support among parties that often disagree on controversial telecom-regulation matters. Consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge applauded the vote, saying it “will allow existing equipment to support gigabit Wi-Fi necessary for telemedicine, multiple education streams, and other valuable services” and “allow wireless Internet service providers in rural areas to dramatically increase the stability and bandwidth of connections to the home.”

Cable-lobby group NCTA also supported the FCC decision, saying that the “sensible compromise will bring faster Wi-Fi to American homes and businesses when they need it most.”

US Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) agreed, saying that “the pandemic has made clear that Americans depend on Wi-Fi for telehealth, remote learning, and working from home” and that “unlicensed spectrum is the underappreciated workhorse of spectrum policy” that helps deliver better home-Internet experiences to Americans.

“Given the balanced approach we are taking today, I am pleased with the support we have garnered across the political spectrum from the Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge to Citizens Against Government Waste, FreedomWorks, and National Taxpayers Union,” Pai said. He also pointed to support from broadband and Wi-Fi industry groups, support from Congressional Democrats, and “recognition from forward-looking automotive interests that our decision today provides a path for C-V2X deployment.”

“Performative” requests

Requests for delay are merely “performative,” Pai said. “The sad fact is that DSRC has done virtually nothing to improve automobile safety,” he said. “A few corporate interests cannot squat on this spectrum for a generation and expect to maintain a stranglehold on it just by giving it the empty slogan of the ‘safety spectrum.’ Nearly two decades of failure is more than enough.”

The new 45MHz can be combined with the adjacent 5.725-5.850GHz band to create a larger block “that could accommodate a variety of options—including two 80-megahertz Wi-Fi channels, four 40-megahertz Wi-Fi channels, or a single contiguous 160-megahertz Wi-Fi channel,” the FCC said.

Though Democrats called on Pai to wait until the presidential transition, they had positive words for the proposal. Freeing up 45MHz “will supersize Wi-Fi, a technology so many of us are relying on like never before,” Rosenworcel said. Starks called the spectrum reassignment an important step toward reducing congestion “and ensuring that we realize the full potential of our broadband connections.” In addition to improving home Wi-Fi, the extra 45MHz will benefit public Wi-Fi networks that are relied upon by many people without good Internet access at home, he said.