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May 7, 2020 10:00 AM, EDT

FCC Opens Wi-Fi Access to Aid Coronavirus Response

Rendering of connected highwayThis rendering shows connected vehicles on a highway. Transportation safety advocates say the 5.9 GHz spectrum should remain dedicated to their needs. (U.S. Department of Transportation)

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Reply comments were due at the Federal Communications Commission on April 27 to address a proposal to allow broadband interests access to a portion of spectrum dedicated to transportation uses.

But as the deadline for comments approached, so did the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Wi-Fi providers were presented with an opportunity to temporarily use some of the spectrum to expand service in response to the outbreak.

To battle the coronavirus, the FCC granted wireless internet service providers temporary access to 45 MHz, or more than half of the dedicated short-range communications band — 5.850 GHz to 5.925 GHz — to deliver improved internet access to customers in largely rural areas.

RELATED: FCC Extends 5.9 GHz Spectrum Proposal Comment Deadline

By May 4, more than 100 wireless internet service providers were using the spectrum, the FCC announced.

Skynet360, based in Florida City, Fla., used the 5.9 GHz temporary authority to extend network access to more than 100 homes in a rural area of the Florida Everglades.

Nextlink, based in Hudson Oaks, Texas, reported more than 2,000 subscribers have been able to upgrade their speed plans to higher levels than was possible before the grant, and the reduction in interference has benefited other wireless internet service providers operating nearby.

Amplex, based in Luckey, Ohio, reported the temporary authority allowed the provider to increase bandwidth across the network by 50% while also reducing congestion on other spectrum bands.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

Pai

Late last year, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he wanted to slash, or even end, public- and private-sector transportation interests’ exclusive access to dedicated short-range communications, or DRSC.

“DSRC has evolved slowly. It’s not widely deployed. And in the meantime, a wave of new transportation communication technologies has emerged,” Pai said at the time.

Transportation interests dug in and submitted comments in favor of keeping the 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for their needs, called V2X (or vehicle-to everything) communications. These include positional communications with other vehicles and infrastructure such as signage and traffic signals.

In 1999, the FCC set aside that portion of the spectrum for applications intended to improve highway safety and efficiency, placing it under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s then-emerging intelligent transportation systems program. But the standards development process for transportation applications took until 2016 to be completed, and by then, Wi-Fi was nearly everywhere.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear

Spear

“It should be no surprise that developing and deploying technology to allow cars and trucks from different manufacturers to communicate critical safety information with each other as well as with pedestrians, cyclists, traffic signals, work zones, and other roadway infrastructure while traveling at highway speeds and in traffic jams would evolve more slowly than connected household devices,” Chris Spear, president and CEO of American Trucking Associations, wrote in a comment to the FCC.

Recently, the auto industry announced an industrywide commitment to deploy at least 5 million V2X radios on vehicles and roadway infrastructure within the next five years. 

“This collective, industrywide commitment will incentivize and expedite deployments in the 5.9 GHz band,” John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, wrote in a comment.

Meanwhile, the issue may resolve in favor of transportation safety.

The FCC in April adopted rules that make 1,200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band (5.925 GHz to 7.125 GHz) available for unlicensed use.

These new rules will usher in Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of Wi-Fi, and play a major role in the growth of the internet of things. Wi-Fi 6 will be over two and a half times faster than the current standard and will offer better performance for American consumers. Opening the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use will also increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi by nearly a factor of five and help improve rural connectivity, according to an FCC statement.

John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation

Bozzella

Bozzella said, “As noted by FCC Chairman Pai, this action will accommodate the demand for Wi-Fi and advance the FCC’s goal of realizing 5G.”

He added: “Further re-allocation of the 5.9 GHz band for Wi-Fi is not necessary and undercuts the value of increasing public safety on our nation’s roadways.”

The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

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