FCC Should Continue Shift Toward Market-Proven Technologies

In 1999, the FCC allocated a huge piece of spectrum for Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC), a technology concept that proponents predicted would allow cars to “talk” to each other and to roadside units for safety, e-commerce, and entertainment functions. In the last gasp of command-and-control spectrum policy, the government hand-picked this single technology and subsidized it with free access to the 75 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band (as well as hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the form of research money), and provided for the exclusion of all other technologies from these frequencies. Because, as we all know, the government is great at predicting the future of technology.

That bet didn’t pay off. As ACU noted in Inside Sources, 20 years have now passed, DSRC still hasn’t delivered on that promise, and this huge spectrum resource sits empty in the vast majority of the country. Why? Because the market recognized that DSRC is a flawed idea. Its non-safety functions are already being delivered by widely accepted technologies like Wi-Fi and LTE; and the safety functions are largely provided by other technologies that have emerged without government subsidy, like radar and lidar. Thankfully, the Department of Transportation (DoT) has abandoned the idea of mandating DSRC in all cars in favor of a technology-neutral approach. DSRC proponents have admitted that their technology will only work if everyone is using it because of a government mandate, and there is no longer good reason to believe that will ever happen.

This failure isn’t a surprise. Of course governments are terrible at picking winners and losers. The role of government is to protect our rights, not to dictate every aspect of the private economy. Given the government’s bad track record, the FCC has now begun to shift its focus away from DSRC and is in the middle of an important proceeding to put the band to put the band to better use by in-demand, market-proven technologies, like Wi-Fi. This technology neutral approach will allow for a number of innovative uses for the band, including automotive safety.

But DSRC supporters are now asking the FCC and DoT to halt that progress and spend millions more taxpayer dollars to conduct years of testing on a plan that no one wants. They are asking the FCC and DoT to stop further consideration of how to put the band to productive use until they test how DSRC (a floppy disk in a WiFi world as we have dubbed it) can share the same channels with Wi-Fi. Everyone knows this a bad idea, and many have said so. Why then do DSRC interests want to test an unwanted sharing approach with a failed technology? Because their goal is simply to delay the process and tie the FCC’s hands.

This proceeding has already dragged on too long. The next step is for the FCC to issue a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking now that proposes to either re-designate the band for unlicensed services in recognition of DSRC’s failure, or that divides the band so that Wi-Fi uses the bottom, and the top three channels are reserved in case DSRC or another auto technology that may emerge in the future. Either way, taxpayers should not be asked to spend millions of dollars for out-of-date testing. According to RAND, opening this band to Wi-Fi would create $200 billion in annual economic value, so both agencies should reject the DSRC industry’s slow rolling and move on with new rules that will allow meaningful use of the 5.9 GHz band.