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FCC Should Open Up Faster, Better Wi-Fi

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Last year the Department of Transportation (DOT) sensibly delayed a held-over Obama regulation that would have mandated an expensive, obsolete technology called dedicated short-range communication in all new cars and trucks sold in America.The Obama rule, according to its own cost estimate, would have imposed total costs of $108 billion and raised the price of every new car by about $300 - for a technology that has already been made obsolete by rapidly advancing developments including a shift toward commercial cellular and sensor-based approaches to vehicle safety.

Worse, DOT use of this spectrum, the 5.9 GHz band, prevents it from being reallocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The band is adjacent to existing Wi-Fi spectrum, and opening it up would allow high-speed gigabit Wi-Fi on a large scale. With Wi-Fi demand growing rapidly, this additional spectrum is needed to keep this ubiquitous technology working smoothly and to reach higher speeds.

In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement at the FCC, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly noted in a 2016 joint statement: "We believe this slice of spectrum provides the best near-term opportunity for promoting innovation and expanding current offerings, such as Wi-Fi. That's because combining the airwaves in this band with those already available for unlicensed use nearby could mean increased capacity, reduced congestion, and higher speeds."

Unfortunately, despite widespread reports that DOT was going to not just withdraw the Obama rule but relinquish the spectrum as well, they have not yet done so. In fact, the rulemaking remains open - albeit redesignated as long-term, meaning no action within the next year - and is still listed in the agency's March 2018 significant rule making report.

And in what could be indicative of a jurisdictional turf battle, DOT stated in November: "DOT hopes to use the dedicated spectrum for transportation lifesaving technologies."

Of course, vehicle safety is understandably the top priority at DOT - but they have already indefinitely delayed the Obama administration's expensive technology mandate and are now reserving spectrum only on the hypothetical possibility that it may have a safety use in the future. Even though the particular spectrum they are reserving is ideally suited for Wi-Fi use.

There is a straightforward solution. The FCC should open the 5.9 GHz band to general unlicensed use, while committing to work with the DOT to identify an alternative spectrum band for automotive safety use in the event that technology develops that requires dedicated spectrum.

Given the rapid developments of cellular capabilities - manufacturers notably weighed in with the DOT that they prefer a technology called Cellular-V2X over DSRC - as well as sensor-based technologies being rapidly developed as part of the autonomous vehicle investment boom - it is entirely possible that no dedicated spectrum will ever be needed. But reassurance from the FCC that if it is needed, a suitable band will be reserved would smooth over any turf concerns that may be preventing DOT from finally closing the book on the Obama administration's misguided approach.

In the meantime, the country's nearly insatiable demand for Wi-Fi in our homes, offices, and just about everywhere else can be met by opening the best spectrum available - 5.9 GHz - rather than waiting because of a talking car law passed in the Internet Dark Ages of 1999.

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