Car makers clash with Congress over Wi-Fi

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Credit: Wikimedia / Kmccoy

Congress wants U.S. regulators to hurry up and open a chunk of federal 5.9 GHz airwaves for commercial Wi-Fi, which would let more smartphones, tablets and laptops milk faster speeds out of wireless routers and hotspots. But the automotive industry, which has designs on the same frequencies, really wants the government to slow down.

The airwaves in question are part of a big spectrum package the White House wants to put to shared use, allowing government and military agencies and the private sector to split time over the airwaves. The Federal Communications itself has been searching for more spectral real estate for Wi-Fi. It seems that everyone is on the same page – well almost everyone.

Automakers plan to use one of those spectrum bands (5850-5925 MHz to be exact) for new automotive networks that would connect cars to each other on the highway and to roadside infrastructure, creating the first smart transportation grids. Talking vehicles could coordinate highway navigation, thereby preventing accidents and easing the flow traffic as well as bringing us one step closer to the autonomous car.

This kind of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, as its called, is another priority of the Obama Administration, but the automotive industry has asked the government to apply the brakes on the Wi-Fi plan until the proper safeguards are in place to make sure commercial and vehicle networks can play nice in the 5.9 GHz band. Backers of the plan, however, think the automakers are stalling, and they’ve gotten their representatives in Congress to apply a little political heat.

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) revived legislation from last session called the Wi-Fi Innovation Act, which sounds a lot more impressive than what the legislation would actually accomplish. Specifically the bill would require the FCC to “move swiftly” in conducting a feasibility study on the 5.9 GHz band while balancing the need of the automotive industry with those of commercial users. The bill also calls for a study on how Wi-Fi could be used in low-income areas for internet access. Representative Bob Latta (R-Ohio) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House.

Big automotive is not happy. AAA and all of the big car manufacturing lobbying groups sent a letter to Congressional bigwigs asking them to oppose the legislation. In a statement, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America said that the automotive and Wi-Fi industries are already working together to see if sharing in the 5.9 GHz band is feasible.

“This collaborative process should continue without Congressionally-imposed deadlines, restrictive parameters or political pressure that creates regulatory uncertainty and could delay bringing these life-saving crash prevention technologies to consumers,” ITS-America CEO and President Thomas Kern said.

But the automotive industry is pretty lonely in its stance. [company]Google[/company], [company]Microsoft[/company], the Consumer Electronics Association, [company]Comcast[/company] and [company]Time Warner Cable[/company] (through their wireless lobbying group WiFiForward), the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Telecom Industry Association and consumer advocates Public Knowledge all applauded the legislation.

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Carl

Interesting perspective…a letter signed by nine major associations, with broad and diverse membership ranging from public agencies, the insurance industry, highway users, and civil engineers, is characterized as coming from “the automotive industry,” while companies like Google, Microsoft, Comcast, et al. are listed separately, as if representing separate industries.

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