Auto Industry Crosses the Line on 5.9 GHz by Using Dead Pedestrians to Justify Spectrum Squatting

Image credit: Flickr user Owen Rudge. Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
Image credit: Flickr user Owen Rudge. Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

For the last 3 years, the auto industry and the Department of Transportation (DoT) have been at war with the open spectrum community of 75 MHz of spectrum up at 5.9 GHz. (I will save the longer history for an upcoming “Insanely Long Field Guide To the 5.9 GHz Proceeding” post.)

So far, so normal. This is how spectrum politics works. Incumbents pay lip service to the idea of spectrum sharing, stress the awful terrible things that will happen if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows the new entrant to operate and cause interference, and insists on an endless series of tests while dragging their feet on anything that would make testing possible. The new entrant, meanwhile, complains about how the other side is stalling, the interference claims are baseless, and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic benefits are lost as the delay continues.

With the final months ticking down, both sides are now ratcheting up their efforts. Last week, Public Knowledge, industry folks (Intel, Google, MS, NCTA, WISPA), and a number of our other spectrum public interest allies sent a letter to the President asking the White House to weigh in at DoT and tell them to stop helping the auto industry stall testing so we can open the spectrum to more unlicensed goodness. Yesterday, the auto industry sent its response, which crossed a line on common decency.

It is one thing to claim that your technology saves lives and that if the FCC doesn’t do what you want, people will die. It is another thing to knowingly and deliberately invoke actual, real dead pedestrians and dead cyclists that you know your proposed technology could not conceivably save in an effort to support your own spectrum squatting. It is even worse when the technology you are pushing, “dedicated short-range communication” (DSRC), would replace the actual existing collision avoidance system you are deploying today that would save cyclists and pedestrians — car radar and sensing systems that use unlicensed spectrum and LIDAR.

How can I make such statement? Because if you read the service rules for DSRC, you will see that the “dedicated short range communications” service requires two-way communication between “mobile units or roadside units.” In other words, it only works to stop collisions if both cars in the collision have active DSRC systems. By contrast, the unlicensed car radar the auto industry is already deploying (as you can see in this charming advertisement for the 2016 Volkswagen Passat) works whether or not the potential collision target (car, bicycle, moose, whatever) has any form of collision avoidance system. So whereas the existing unlicensed car radar the auto industry wants to replace with DSRC would detect a cyclist or pedestrian and auto-brake, the only way a car relying on DSRC would avoid killing a pedestrian or cyclist is in the unlikely chance I happened to be carrying a DSRC unit and power source in my pocket on my way to the Metro.

The Auto Industry Hypocrisy on Testing, Deployment, and Development of DSRC

As you might imagine, the other arguments in the letter are equally problematic. The letter’s lengthy paean of praise to the concept of testing for safe sharing is belied by the three years of stalling tactics to avoid any testing that would demonstrate that (a) the auto industry does not actually need 75 MHz of spectrum for life and safety applications; and (b) unlicensed spectrum can quite happily coexist in collision avoidance systems between cars close enough that it needs a collision alert. (For all the nonsense about interference from handsets, DSRC auto breaking will not trigger until cars are close enough to be in danger of colliding. Otherwise, every DSRC car would auto-brake in the middle of the highway every morning commute.)

The FCC tried to do joint testing with DoT and the auto industry from the time the FCC started this proceeding in February 2012. By the end of 2014, it was so blatantly obvious that the auto industry and DoT were refusing to cooperate that Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Corey Booker introduced a bill to create a testing time table. The auto industry violently opposed the testing bill, as well as the fact that Senator Rubio and Senator Booker dared to challenge the auto industry’s repeated insistence that spectrum sharing in the 5.9 GHz band was impossible. In September 2015, 1 year and 3 months after the Rubio/Booker Bill was introduced, the auto industry signed a joint letter with the cable industry and tech companies wanting to do unlicensed in the 5.9 GHz band, agreeing to a testing framework and promising to do testing.

But here we are, 8 months after the auto industry put in writing that they would do testing under an agreed upon framework, 2 years and 2 months after the Rubio/Booker Testing Bill was introduced, 4 years since the FCC first proposed and sought cooperation from the auto industry, with no sign of any testing. Instead, once again, the auto industry sends yet another letter — in response to the public interest industry letter from last week pushing for testing — swearing that auto makers absolutely love the idea of sharing spectrum on a non-interfering basis, but that we need to delay testing even longer or DSRC won’t be able to save pedestrian lives anyway.

Time for the FCC (and the White House) to Stop the Auto Industry Spectrum Squatting

Despite the fact that DSRC testing involves the Department of Transportation, it is not federal spectrum. This is a private licensed service governed entirely by the FCC. The FCC can — and should — adopt a “framework order” setting basic rules for sharing and refining them with later testing. This is the incremental approach the FCC used with the ongoing 3.5 GHz proceeding, the Incentive Auction/600 MHz licenses, and a number of other proceedings.

In other words, instead of the current state where the FCC has essentially said “Well, we’d like to reclaim this band for unlicensed again, because taking it away from unlicensed back in 1999 was clearly a huge mistake, but maybe we won’t, so we should do some testing,” the FCC should issue a Report & Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking saying “Guess what, we adopt the proposed rules, now we will do some testing to determine (a) whether the auto industry even needs this in the first place; (b) how much the auto industry actually needs for life and safety purposes — rather than the amount they want to sell your geo-location information and beam you advertisements (What, you didn’t think the car industry was planning to monetize this spectrum for in-car advertising? Check out this report by Michael Calabrese.); and, (c) assuming the auto industry actually does need some for life and safety, whether that needs to be exclusive or could tolerate sharing.

And when the Department of Transportation squawks on behalf of the auto industry, the administration should intervene. Because when you have descended to the level of invoking actual dead pedestrians and dead cyclists that you know your technology couldn’t save to justify your spectrum squatting, you have crossed a line, especially when you as DoT are supposed to be saving lives.

Source: Tales of the Sausage Factory.

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