The Fuse

Does Losing Most of the 5.9GHz Spectrum Band Make U.S. Vehicles Less Competitive?

by Phillip Wilcox | February 09, 2021

From the COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts to boosting the economy, there are many issues requiring President Biden’s immediate attention. Biden has already announced a series of executive orders and a push for legislation to ensure a substantial vaccine production and delivery effort as well as a mask mandate for all public areas in the United States.

However, there is one issue that does not get front page headlines, but it is still of great importance. This issue could impact the auto industry in the U.S. for the short and potentially long term. On November 18, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to open the 5.9 gigahertz (GHz) frequency band to allow for unlicensed Wi-Fi network connectivity.

Beginning in 1999, the FCC allocated 75 megahertz (MHz) of the 5.9GHz spectrum band, which is almost the entire spectrum, to the Department of Transportation (DoT) for vehicle safety through Direct Short-Range Communications (DSRC). DSRC allows vehicles to communicate with other vehicles and dedicated infrastructure projects, such as smart traffic signals.

Under this new plan, the FCC will make 45MHz—more than half of the spectrum—immediately available for unlicensed Wi-Fi networks. The remainder will be designated for vehicle safety through Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) technology and not DSRC.

The more people use the 5.9GHz frequency band, the longer the signal takes to be sent and return to the vehicles. This would make connected or autonomous vehicles less safe and all of the possible reduction of traffic congestion benefits would be reduced. Companies that had been relying on DSRC would now need to pivot to the C-V2X technology for vehicle safety. The existing and test infrastructure projects, relying on DSRC, are incompatible with C-V2X and would need to either be changed or replaced.

Opponents of this rule will certainly ask what incoming president Joe Biden plans to do to fix this situation. Unfortunately for them, it may not be possible—or if it is possible, it would not be easy. It took the concerted effort of former FCC chairman Ajit Pai almost four years to reallocate over half of the spectrum, and there were also both Democrat and Republican officials who voted for its reallocation.

Once unlicensed Wi-Fi networks are created using the spectrum, it will be even more difficult to change because people will become accustomed to having them. Agency and bureaucratic inertia cannot be easily changed and once an agency policy is created, it can be even more difficult to alter.

This reallocation decision could also hurt the ability of vehicles produced in the United States to compete internationally. Other countries, such as South Korea, Australia, Singapore, EU nations, and China could use more of the spectrum for vehicle safety and DSRC. Vehicles produced in the United States would not be designed to offer vehicle safety features for DSRC and would be less safe and potentially be less competitive with vehicles produced in these countries.

There is one factor that could make the incoming Biden administration focus on the allocation of the 5.9GHz frequency band as a priority. This factor would be the ongoing competition with China, particularly over their new emphasis on developing and producing high-tech products and services in the Made for China 2025 policy. The president does not plan to immediately end the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on goods imported from China, but he disagrees with the unilateral approach to dealing with China taken by Trump.

Biden will likely be more targeted in his approach to challenging Chinese technology companies, such as Huawei and ZTE who seek to win global 5G network supremacy. He will also try to work with allies in this effort to increase the US’s leverage in future trade negotiations with China.

However, this collaborative approach recently became much more difficult. On November 15, 2020, China joined the largest trade agreement in the world—a 15-country treaty, including every country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This agreement also includes America’s closest allies in Asia—Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand—but not the United States itself. China then followed this up on December 30 by signing an investment deal with the EU, which had been in negotiation for more than seven years.

Making technologically incompatible vehicles to export to these countries in both Asia and the EU will make it more difficult to re-establish close relationships with these allies. This would be particularly true if China chooses to allocate most, or all, of its own 5.9GHz frequency band to allow for DSRC. Regardless, Biden has his work cut out for him diplomatically if he wants to have a more collaborative approach to dealing with China’s rise as a global technology power.

Diplomacy, and international affairs, in the 21st century is more like a game of chess than checkers. A false move can have lasting consequences and each decision must be made with caution and mindful of the many possible effects that it could cause. Because of China’s recent moves, it has gained the advantage. This is now a critical point where each move has even greater importance. Good luck, President Biden, you will need it.