Biden’s FCC should reverse decision to split safe driver spectrum

Preserving the Safety Band is key to America remaining the world leader in safe transportation automation

Under the FCC’s new rules, with little or no Safety Band, accidents will become more common and safety less so, Furchtgott-Roth writes.  (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Under the FCC’s new rules, with little or no Safety Band, accidents will become more common and safety less so, Furchtgott-Roth writes. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Posted April 20, 2021 at 5:30am

During the pandemic of the century, when the nation’s highways looked like ghost towns, car crashes increased. Deaths on the road rose by 8 percent and injuries rose by 24 percent in 2020, even as driving declined.

It is therefore especially troubling that the Federal Communications Commission voted last November to take away over half of the spectrum air waves reserved for transportation safety, known as the Safety Band. To make matters worse, the FCC also banned the most popular technology using spectrum for connected vehicles, instead requiring an unproven, untested technology.

American motorists deserve better, and the National Transportation Safety Board agrees. A recent recommendation by the NTSB — an independent government agency responsible for safety across all modes of travel — has included preserving the spectrum air waves for collision avoidance and connected vehicle technology in its biannual 10 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

Safety bands and spectrum airwaves may not be household terms, but anyone driving America’s roads should care: Connected vehicle technology using spectrum can prevent cars crashing into each other and killing or injuring passengers. U.S. drivers should have access to the latest lifesaving equipment, and regulators should make sure that companies have the tools to develop safer cars and automated vehicles.

The NTSB said its members were “alarmed” by the FCC’s decision, noting that if it were not reversed, “safety progress could be hindered.”

The NTSB had filed objections with the FCC before the decision was made, but the FCC took no notice. Neither did it heed multiple safety warnings from the Department of Transportation, the other expert agency in transportation safety.

Rather, the FCC wanted to allocate transportation safety spectrum to unlicensed Wi-Fi — the Wi-Fi that pops up on your phone at the airport and asks whether you want to connect.

Devices that use unlicensed spectrum, including Wi-Fi technologies, are extraordinarily useful to consumers. But Wi-Fi already operates in many different bands without encroaching on the Safety Band. Consider that as the FCC voted to take away 45 MHz of the 75 MHz spectrum assigned to transportation safety, an additional 1,200 MHz was already allocated to unlicensed Wi-Fi by the FCC elsewhere. 

Americans will see no fewer devices using unlicensed spectrum applications if the Safety Band remains off limits. In contrast, there is no other possible dedicated band for traffic safety if the Safety Band is taken away and given to or shared with unlicensed devices.

The FCC is independent and has complete discretion over the allocation of nonfederal spectrum. It sees having more spectrum for unlicensed Wi-Fi and less for transportation safety as in the public interest. Those of us who drive, or who have friends and family who drive, need to have the FCC reverse this view. It’s a tough sell: Dozens of companies that would benefit from free Wi-Fi lobby the FCC every day; ordinary people who would benefit from traffic safety do not.

States have deployed transportation safety projects all over the country and are looking at new technologies. The FCC has received proposals for about 1,000 more projects in the Safety Band that have not been approved. But these proposed safety projects, as well as existing ones, would be scrapped under the the new rules.

Automobile traffic moves fast, and fractions of seconds are the difference between getting safely home and having an accident. Under the FCC’s new rules, with little or no Safety Band, accidents will become more common and safety less so.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents auto manufacturers, has committed to putting devices into five million cars in five years if the Safety Band is preserved and has proposed a band plan split between technologies. Technology is changing rapidly, and innovators need flexibility.

Other countries, including Canada, China and European nations, have set aside radio spectrum for transportation safety, mostly in the same 5.9 GHz band as the U.S. International compatibility is important so that cars made abroad will be useful for American drivers. Preserving the Safety Band is vital for America to remain the world leader in safe transportation automation.

Drivers can hope that the NTSB’s 10 Most Wanted List will be a wake-up call and that the FCC under President Joe Biden will reverse its prior decision and allow motorists the use of spectrum for traffic safety.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth is an adjunct professor of economics at George Washington University. She served as deputy assistant secretary for research and development at the Department of Transportation under President Donald Trump and as chief of staff of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.