Safer Roads or Stronger Wi-Fi?

Limited spectrum has connected-car advocates at odds with expanded-Wi-Fi supporters.

Talking cars will one day make the roads safer, but will they come at the expense of Wi-Fi?
National Journal
Alex Brown
June 20, 2014, 9:36 a.m.

Talk­ing cars will one day be man­dat­ory, but in the mean­time, some think they’re hold­ing back the air­waves for much-needed Wi-Fi.

As In­ter­net ac­cess grows, more and more fre­quency is needed to sup­port Wi-Fi devices. Some of that fre­quency — the 5.9 GHz band — has been set aside for talk­ing cars. Vehicle-to-vehicle com­mu­nic­a­tion, which the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment says will one day be man­dat­ory, al­lows cars to alert one an­oth­er to their pres­ence and to warn drivers if a wreck is im­min­ent.

The Na­tion­al High­way Traffic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion es­tim­ates talk­ing cars could elim­in­ate 80 per­cent of wrecks not in­volving driver impair­ment.

For now, though, the 5.9 GHz band is spec­trum that can’t be used for Wi-Fi devices. Some see a middle ground in which the fre­quency is still used for talk­ing cars but shared for some Wi-Fi pur­poses.

Sens. Marco Ru­bio and Cory Book­er want to see if that’s pos­sible. Their Wi-Fi In­nov­a­tion Act, re­leased Fri­day, gives the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion 18 months to test the spec­trum to see if it can be shared without in­ter­fer­ence. “This bill re­quires the FCC to con­duct test­ing that would provide more spec­trum to the pub­lic and ul­ti­mately put the re­source to bet­ter use, while re­cog­niz­ing the fu­ture needs and im­port­ant work be­ing done in in­tel­li­gent trans­port­a­tion,” Ru­bio said in a re­lease.

Some con­nec­ted-car ad­voc­ates think that timeline is rushed. At present, there are no firm spec­trum-shar­ing plans in place, said Paul Feen­stra of the In­tel­li­gent Trans­port­a­tion So­ci­ety of Amer­ica. Without plans, the FCC has noth­ing to test, and giv­ing it a brief timeline to find an an­swer could be prob­lem­at­ic.

“We’re con­cerned about put­ting dead­lines on the test­ing of the tech­no­logy that has yet to be in­tro­duced,” Feen­stra said. “We’re very con­cerned about pre­vent­ing a rush to judg­ment. [Rush­ing test­ing] could po­ten­tially put the fu­ture of vehicle-to-vehicle com­mu­nic­a­tions at risk.”¦ Any po­ten­tial for in­ter­fer­ence in that band is un­ac­cept­able.”

Talk­ing cars will have to com­mu­nic­ate at a rate of 10 sig­nals per second. For that to work, said Feen­stra, the sig­nal must be “high speed, it’s got to be se­cure, re­li­able, and it’s got to work every time.” He’s con­cerned Wi-Fi use on that fre­quency could clog up sig­nals and pre­vent the tech­no­logy from be­ing fool­proof.

In oth­er words, ced­ing part of the 5.9 GHz band — without be­ing ab­so­lutely sure it can be done in­ter­fer­ence-free — could en­danger what’s her­al­ded as one of the greatest auto safety break­throughs ever. But with the ever-in­creas­ing de­mand for Wi-Fi, it may prove to re­tain sole pos­ses­sion.

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