Fight begins over who gets spectrum assigned to self driving cars

by Steve Blum • , , ,


The automotive industry might pay a high price for sitting on spectrum for 20 years, without using it. Ironically, it comes when an automotive use for the 75 MHz in the 5.9 GHz band allocated to Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) is right around the corner.

Lobbyists for Charter Communications, Comcast and other monopoly model cable companies want the frequencies reassigned and used to expand one of the unlicensed bands that’s commonly used for WiFi (although being unlicensed, it can be used for pretty much anything else, too). There’s a lot to be said for making more unlicensed spectrum available, and extending an existing band is simpler, from a user perspective, than creating a new one.

The trade off is that the spectrum won’t be available to support self-driving cars, as automotive technologists are assuming. Or at least they’ll have to share it with other users, which might or might not be practical.

Autonomous vehicles will have at least a gigabit worth of data, and maybe more, circulating on their internal networks. The major source will be high resolution video cameras that the cars use for eyes. Most of the processing will happen onboard, but there are also plans to share video between vehicles. For example, your car could be looking through a video camera on the car in front of it, to get a better view of what’s heading down the road.

There are other uses for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. Mobile carriers would prefer that all of it be done via their networks, for a price of course. That’s a problem, though, and not just because it would, in effect, let them impose a private tax on passengers. The networks that the four major carriers are building out in the U.S. won’t have the capacity to support just the connectivity that car makers need even if they have access to a dedicated automotive band.

Part of the problem is regulatory disconnect. The Federal Communications Commission assigned the band to DSRC twenty years ago, with particular applications in mind. Those applications never materialised, but new, self driving car technology, which was never anticipated, developed instead. At the same time, federal transportation officials are trying to come up with a solution based on the older, unused service model.

Right now, everyone is playing the District of Columbia’s typical zero sum game – one bunch of lobbyists gets the spectrum, another loses it. There should be a win-win solution that lets self driving cars communicate with each other and increases the bandwidth available for people, too. To figure it out, the FCC has to focus on technology and the future, not politics and the present. That might be a hopelessly tall order for the current batch of commissioners.