FCC votes to open 5.9 GHz for Wi-Fi, C-V2X

FCC meeting
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the pandemic has underscored that consumers need access and more bandwidth for telework, remote learning, telehealth and other broadband-related services. (Screen shot of FCC meeting)

Given the amount of time devoted to the subject, it’s only fitting that Michael O’Rielly would vote for repurposing the 5.9 GHz band for Wi-Fi during one of his last meetings as an FCC commissioner.

O’Rielly, a Republican whose nomination for another term was abruptly withdrawn in August, worked for years with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, to take a new look at the 5.9 GHz band.

The band was designated for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) more than 20 years ago, when the commission set aside 75 megahertz of spectrum in the band for DSRC to improve traffic safety. But little transpired on that front in the intervening years as the need for more Wi-Fi spectrum grew dramatically. 

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The item adopted Wednesday makes 45 megahertz immediately available in the 5850-5925 MHz band, or 5.9 GHz, for indoor, unlicensed operations and proposes rules for outdoor unlicensed use. The remaining part of the 5.9 GHz band is designated for auto safety, specifically Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) technology.

Rosenworcel gave credit to O’Rielly. “He deserves real kudos for his commitment to this subject and the fact we’re even here today is due in large part to his persistence and his belief that we need to find a way forward that updates true safety operations and also makes it possible to expand the use of unlicensed services in the 5.9 GHz band,” she said in prepared remarks.  

What’s most promising is the ability for Wi-Fi providers to rapidly incorporate the 5.9 GHz band into existing offerings as soon as the order is effective. “I’m extremely pleased, bordering on ecstatic, that after so many years of talk, there is finally action,” O’Rielly said in his prepared comments. Most equipment will be able to take advantage of the spectrum with quick software upgrades, he noted.

RELATED: FCC’s O’Rielly: 5.9 GHz band is ‘a mess’

There were some things he would have liked to have seen turn out differently. For example, the amount of time to relocate the DSRC incumbents out of the band should have been six months instead of one year, he said. (After all this time, he said just over 15,000 cars were ever equipped with DSRC and only 3,000 were sold; none are currently for sale, and the DSRC deployments have been mostly experimental.)

He’s also disappointed the commission didn’t take a technology-neutral approach. It would have been more beneficial if the commission allocated the spectrum for vehicle safety and allowed car manufacturers to choose the technology of their choice, rather than stating it’s for C-V2X. While C-V2X is the right way to go for the immediate future, it doesn’t need to be embedded in the rules to be successful, he said.

Rosenworcel also said it’s regrettable that the record in the proceeding still features less than unanimous support from federal partners. “We should have taken some more time to clear this up,” as they were asked to do by the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Senator Maria Cantwell, (D-Washington).

Fellow Democrat Commissioner Geoffrey Starks expressed a similar sentiment, saying he’s also disappointed by the continued disagreements between federal agencies on spectrum issues.

“It is exasperating” that once again, different agencies in the same administration can’t get on the same page. Cantwell noted these disagreements in her letter to the chairman on Tuesday and called for the item to be taken off the agenda as controversial in light of the presidential transition, he said. 

Sticking with a media-themed messaging as he’s done throughout his time on the commission, Chairman Ajit Pai said the saga of the 5.9 GHz band brings to mind the 1970s song, “Give Me Just a Little More Time.”

“Well, we have given DSRC a little more time – many, many times,” he said. “Today, at long last, we say, in a bipartisan voice, time’s up.”

RELATED: FCC moves to authorize C-V2X in 5.9 GHz band

Pai cited two fundamental reasons that changes to the 5.9 GHz band could no longer wait. First, there’s a pressing need to allocate additional spectrum for unlicensed operations. The pandemic has underscored that consumers need access and more bandwidth to be able to engage in telework, remote learning, telehealth, and other broadband-related services, he said.

Second, the automotive industry has pivoted from DSRC to C-V2X technology. C-V2X is more reliable and resilient than DSRC, he said, and C-V2X has momentum both domestically and internationally, with automakers such as Ford, Audi, Daimler, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover pursuing deployment of C-V2X equipment. 

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

Praise for unlicensed spectrum

The commission’s action drew applause from a number of industry stakeholders.

“At a time when so many Americans rely on Wi-Fi for connectivity, this decision is vital,” the Wi-Fi Alliance said in a statement. “The newly available unlicensed spectrum will enable wider channels that can be immediately used by Wi-Fi 6 to support gigabit connectivity with lower latency, improved coverage, and better power efficiency. The Wi-Fi industry is ready to use this spectrum to deliver expanded connectivity benefits nationwide.”

In addition to these rules, the commission adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) that proposes technical rules for outdoor unlicensed operations across much of the U.S. in the lower part of the band once Intelligent Transportation Services (ITS) operations have vacated that spectrum. The FNPRM seeks comment on how to transition ITS operations in the band to C-V2X-based technology, among other things.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) applauded the commission for working toward a consensus.

Since March, dozens of WISPA members took the commission up on its offer to use 45-megahertz of 5.9 GHz spectrum on an unlicensed basis via Special Temporary Authority, according to Louis Peraertz, VP of Policy for WISPA. “These temporary grants of authority enabled many of our members to quickly and effectively meet increased capacity demands brought about by the onset of COVID-19. They are potent case studies that show how the band can be used to keep us safe and connected through outdoor, point-to-multipoint connectivity,” he said in a statement.         

“Today’s Order will immediately allow widespread indoor use of the lower 45-megahertz of the band. The pending FNPRM tees up permanent use for WISPs to use the 45-megahertz outdoors.  We look forward to working with all stakeholders during the FNPRM process to maximize the band for broadband consumers who need this unlicensed spectrum to stay connected during the pandemic, and to promote an efficient transition of automotive safety communications to the upper portion of the ban,” Peraertz added.   

RELATED: Qualcomm says C-V2X ‘ready to go,’ urges swift access to 5.9 GHz

Qualcomm signaled that’s its work is not yet done. While it’s pleased that the FCC decision both reassigns the upper 30 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band to C-V2X and creates a path for C-V2X to get on the air quickly, it’s not entirely on board.

“We’re very concerned that the ruling does not provide sufficient protection for C-V2X to avoid interference from Wi-Fi, and we plan to continue working with the FCC and other stakeholders to achieve the necessary protections,” said Dean Brenner,  senior vice president, Spectrum Strategy and Technology Policy.

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