By Karl Bode
While we’ve had no shortage of criticism for Ajit Pai’s facts-optional, relentless ass kissing of entrenched telecom monopolies, or his wholesale demolition of U.S. consumer protection, his agency has done a good job bringing more wireless spectrum to market. Doing so wasn’t particularly controversial, since everybody, consumers to big carriers alike, benefit from having access to more spectrum — especially valuable middleband spectrum of great use in 5G deployments. Still, it’s complicated and warrants kudos in an era when government often can’t tie its own shoes correctly.
Last week, the FCC quietly voted unanimously to add 45MHz of spectrum to Wi-Fi to public access, taking it away from an auto industry public safety initiative that failed to materialize over the last 20 years. Spectrum in the 5.850GHz to 5.925GHz range for several decades had been set aside for something called Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications system that was supposed to warn drivers of traffic dangers. But decades in, 99.9943% of cars still don’t have the technology, and many experts had argued this spectrum was better used elsewhere.
Because this spectrum aids his industry BFFs, Pai was keen on moving forward in ensuring this spectrum could be put to better use. Both consumer groups and telecom policy and lobbying groups agreed with the decision, which hasn’t happened all that often in the last four years. Public Knowledge counsel Harold Feld, who probably knows more about U.S. spectrum policy than anybody alive, had this to say of the move:
“The addition of 45 MHz of unlicensed spectrum will create a WiFi channel capable of supporting WiFi 6. This will enable wireless providers to dramatically increase the speed and reliability of rural broadband. It will dramatically increase the power of public hotspots and mobile hotspots on which many low-income families rely for access to school and work during the pandemic. Because this relies on already existing technology, the expansion and change to WiFi 6 can happen relatively quickly through software upgrades once the rules become effective.”
DSRC services now have to vacate the lower 45MHz within one year. The FCC also set aside around 30MHz for a newer vehicle safety technology dubbed Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X), which the FCC claims will serve the same function using less overall precious spectrum.
The decision wasn’t entirely without controversy. The Department of Transit wasn’t thrilled, arguing that DSRC tech still could have been useful, that 30 MHz wasn’t enough for C-V2X to work (“there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that 30 MHz will
suffice to support a safety-driven ecosystem like the one in which DOT and other
stakeholders have invested.”). The auto industry (which had been accused of “spectrum squatting”) understandably opposed the ruling via its various policy organizations. Other critics like Senator Maria Cantwell argued the FCC had been told to pause all controversial decisions during the transition, which is custom.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find an issue where this FCC and consumer groups align, so progress is progress, even if not everybody’s happy with the outcome. Of course, this doesn’t make up for Pai’s long history of demolishing U.S. consumer protection on behalf of telecom monopolies in fits of lies and rank hypocrisy, but it’s still nice to see (most) folks agree on one of his last major decisions as agency boss.