After 20 Years, the Feds Need to Stop Holding Up Wi-Fi for Automated Cars

Remember 1999? Yes, it was a memorable year thanks to the Prince song. But, the last year of the 20th century is also noted for the launch of MySpace, the announcement of Blue Tooth, the rage that was Napster, and the panic over Y2K and the millennium bug.

We also remember President Clinton being acquitted in his impeachment trial, the Dow closing at 11,000 for the first time, and the debut of “The Sopranos.”

At a time when stamps were 33 cents each, gas was a $1.22 a gallon, and Nokia candy bar phones were all the rage, the federal government had a grand vision of the future of automated vehicles — based on the Wi-Fi spectrum.

Fast forward twenty years later. “Game of Thrones” is about to wrap up, two-thirds of Americans have smart phones, and the Dow is at 25,000. Twenty years of technology innovation have been nothing short of amazing. But the American people are stuck with the same automated vehicle plan from the federal government that was rolled out in 1999, despite the transportation industry travelling in a totally different direction for years.

Two decades ago, the FCC set aside the 5.9 GHz band of Wi-Fi spectrum for automated vehicles. Spectrum is an invisible band of airwaves over which wireless communications can carry bits of information. When a person tunes in a car radio to a certain channel, or frequency, you hear the information on that frequency of spectrum. But there is a limited supply of frequencies on your radio, and a limited supply of spectrum. Too much programming on the same spectrum and you get interference that destroys its value. No one wants their favorite Prince song interrupted, much less their phone call, by interference.

To get around this, the Department of Transportation used those spectrum assets to devise their own vehicle to vehicle communications system. Over the last twenty years, the federal government pushed its industrial policy for talking cars with a promise of reducing death and injury.

Yet, despite this huge asset, the advantage of being both a regulator and a competitor in the market, and more than $1 billion in taxpayer money spent, no product or system was ever delivered. Today, Americans are just stuck with a plan that never worked and less available Wi-Fi bandwidth.

Over the same time, private industry invented a better way. Automated cars were designed and deployed that do not depend on wi-fi. Instead, a number of onboard technologies guide the vehicle, including radar and lidar. Apparently, there was little interest in a car dependent on an external system of steady and strong Wi-Fi for its guidance and safety.

That block of spectrum has also become increasingly valuable, in terms of both financial value and opportunity. The neighbor to the 5.9 GHz band, the 5.8 GHz band, is a mainstay of Wi-Fi, supporting millions of devices. On the other side, the 6 GHz band will likely soon be added to the Wi-Fi playing field. At that point, 5.9GHz will be an island, unable to move or grow all while inhibiting a seamless, larger playing field for the rest of Wi-Fi. With a rapidly increasing number of connected devices, the demand for more spectrum is real.

The spectrum “hoarding” by the federal government puts it on a crash course with all other Wi-Fi users in California and around the country. Adding insult to injury, Washington’s desire to fashion an automated vehicle industry in the government’s image puts it directly in the path of the 62 companies in California developing driverless cars and currently testing them. These companies see the future, and it is not a federal government-created scheme, but a marketplace of competitors fighting to create the best product.

Inventors and creators should not have to fear the government creating a system to compete with their inventions.

Twenty years is more than long enough for consumers to be denied the use of those precious airwaves to improve their wireless lives. Now is the time for the Department of Transportation to give up on its multi-decade quest to invent the future of transportation and allow innovation to flourish in the transportation marketplace and amongst the people.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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