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

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Toyota and Lexus recently announced plans to deploy DSRC in the U.S., further complicating matters for the 5.9 GHz band. (Pixabay)

Asked to describe the state of the 5.9 GHz band, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said if he were to pick one word, he’d say it’s messy.

“I think 5.9 is a mess,” he said at an event in Washington, D.C., hosted by WifiForward, referring in part to spectrum that was set aside for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) to make cars and driving safer.

One of the things related to the incredible mess is tests the FCC has done internally to see if unlicensed devices can work in the 5.9 GHz band without causing harmful interference to those who want to use it for auto-safety purposes. “But when I look at the auto-safety story, I’m a little dubious on what might actually happen,” he said.

“We’ve had promises before, they haven’t materialized. We’re talking a 20-plus year history and we’re not that much further than we’ve been the last couple years,” he stated when he and a colleague visited Michigan.

DSRC is going up against C-V2X, the cellular industry’s path to connected/autonomous cars, which is newer and has the backing of a lot of tech companies.

“We have a heavy load to do, in my opinion, and I think we have to look at all of the tools” they have before them, O'Rielly said.

RELATED: Editor's Corner—DSRC vs C-V2X: It's one fine mess

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said it’s hard to believe it was about 20 years ago that the FCC set aside the spectrum for DSRC. “Twenty years ago, a wireless phone was really expensive,” and dial-up internet was still a thing; AOL was mailing discs to consumers for getting online.

“I don’t think we should strand our thinking about safety technology and spectrum ideas from 20 years ago,” she said. Another challenge is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has suggested it will take 30 years for the DSRC technology to be sufficiently deployed to be effective on the roads.

Spectrum policy needs to move much faster, and it’s imperative the FCC release the test data as soon as possible for the auto safety and unlicensed communities to see, she said.

RELATED: Sharing in 5.9 GHz band gets renewed focus, but automakers still hitched to DSRC

The two commissioners recently wrote to Toyota after it announced plans to deploy DSRC in vehicles sold in the U.S. starting in 2021. The CEO of Toyota wrote back (PDF), saying the decision by Toyota and Lexus to deploy DSRC in the U.S. is just the latest development in an ongoing and persistent move by automakers, infrastructure owners and operators to deploy “this proven technology” throughout the world. More than 100,000 DSRC-equipped Toyota and Lexus vehicles were on the road in Japan as of March 2018.

O’Rielly, a Republican, and Rosenworcel, a Democrat, have combined efforts over the years into activism for getting more spectrum for unlicensed uses and in particular in the 5.9 GHz band. They might not agree on many things, but they are a united front on the needs for more unlicensed spectrum being unleashed and for promoting innovation.

WifiForward recently released an economic report showing the value of unlicensed spectrum to the U.S. economy has grown by 129% since 2013. The report found that unlicensed spectrum generated $525.19 billion in value to the U.S. economy in 2017 and projects the economic value of unlicensed spectrum in the U.S. to reach $834.48 billion by 2020.  

O’Rielly also observed that it looks like fewer carmakers are committed to DSRC and more are getting behind the C-V2X strategy.

Ford was a DSRC believer at one time, but it has now planted itself firmly in the C-V2X camp, announcing with Qualcomm earlier this year plans to do field trials in San Diego and Detroit. At that time, Qualcomm Technologies’ first C-V2X commercial chipset was expected to be commercially available in the second half of 2018.