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Cable industry wants to snatch airwaves away from 'talking cars'

Cable industry wants to snatch airwaves away from 'talking cars'
Under the Obama administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed requiring vehicle-to-vehicle radios on all new automobiles, saying the technology would prevent many collisions. The effort has since stalled. (Richard Vogel / Associated Press)

Twenty years ago, automakers won exclusive rights to use a portion of U.S. airwaves for ultra-safe “talking cars” that would communicate with one another wirelessly, seeing around corners and averting collisions.

That future hasn’t arrived. Now, with just one talking vehicle on the road — a lone Cadillac model — cable providers want to loosen automakers’ hold on the frequencies.

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NCTA-the Internet & Television Assn., a trade group with members including top U.S. cable provider Comcast Corp., asked regulators Tuesday to open those airwaves for use by Wi-Fi signals that would shoulder more and more of cable subscribers’ traffic.

“Use of this band has failed,” the trade group said in a petition to the Federal Communications Commission. The United States “can no longer afford” to allocate those airwaves exclusively for vehicle-to-vehicle communications “with the hope that the next 20 years will somehow be different than the last two decades of stagnation,” it said.

The group wants the FCC to begin a new proceeding to allocate all or a large portion of the 5.9-gigahertz spectrum for so-called unlicensed use by Wi-Fi devices to alleviate a shortage of available bandwidth.

Scramble for spectrum

The request reflects a scramble by industries for wireless footholds as digital technology transforms a wide array of things, including cars, household appliances and video feeds. The competition to serve millions of connected devices, including mobile phones, has placed a premium on controlling airwaves.

Automakers led by General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have been major proponents of the technology that relays data about vehicle speed and direction wirelessly between cars and roadside infrastructure to prevent collisions.

"Automakers support preserving the 5.9-GHz spectrum band for transportation safety applications intended to prevent crashes and save lives," said Scott Hall, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association for a dozen carmakers including GM and Toyota.

"Any unlicensed use in the 5.9-GHz band should not be permitted unless it is proven it will not cause harmful interference to these safety systems," Hall added.

Proposed mandate

Under the Obama administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed requiring vehicle-to-vehicle radios on all new automobiles by 2023, citing agency research projecting that it could prevent 80% of non-impaired collisions.

That effort has stalled under the Trump administration. The safety agency has taken no action on the proposed mandate since a comment period on it closed in April 2017.

“Without the 5.9-GHz band, we lose many of the life-saving benefits of connected vehicles," Shailen Bhatt, president of trade group ITS America, said in a statement. The group supports reserving the spectrum for connected-vehicle safety technologies.

For years, cable providers have asked the FCC to allow broader use of the talking-car airwaves. They say that particular swath is ideal for carrying Wi-Fi traffic that handles an increasing portion of cable subscribers’ data.

For instance, Charter Communications Inc., the second-largest U.S. cable provider, told Congress in July that its Wi-Fi network serves more than 280 million wireless devices. Opening the 5.9-GHz airwaves is a “gateway to revolutionized Wi-Fi speeds and innovation,” Craig Cowden, Charter’s senior vice president of wireless technology, told lawmakers.

Limited deployment

Proponents of expanded Wi-Fi capacity hope to take advantage of the auto industry’s limited progress getting vehicle-to-vehicle safety systems into the marketplace.

Industry, government and university researchers have done extensive testing of the Wi-Fi-like vehicle-to-vehicle communications signals, but only GM produces a car with the technology. Toyota and Volkswagen have announced plans to equip vehicles with the technology in the coming years.

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In addition, some carmakers — including Daimler, BMW and Ford Motor Co. — want to use cellular signals rather than the technology at the heart of talking-car efforts by GM, Toyota and NHTSA.

Ford spokeswoman Sinead Phipps said company tests show that cellular-based connected vehicle systems, or CV2X in industry parlance, perform better and create a path to adopt higher-speed 5G cellular signals.

"We view CV2X as being the better solution," Phipps said in an email. Representatives for GM, Toyota and other auto industry groups did not offer immediate comment Tuesday.

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