The FCC’s decision to reallocate the safety band spectrum will impede efforts to save lives
As chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, I have a responsibility to ensure that actions Congress and the federal government take regarding our transportation networks contribute to, and do not detract from, public safety. That’s why I oppose the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to repurpose more than half of the 5.9 GHz radio frequency band, also known as the Safety Band.
Since 1999, the 5.9 GHz band has been reserved for dedicated short-range communications to enable vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications. V2X communications, and the technologies they will enable — namely, connected vehicles — will make our transportation networks smarter, more efficient, dramatically reduce congestion, significantly increase throughput on existing infrastructure, and, most critically, make us safer. These technologies, in other words, have the potential to save lives but only if the frequencies they rely on continue to be available for V2X applications.
Unfortunately, these important benefits to public safety didn’t stop the FCC from deciding to reallocate a portion of the Safety Band last fall. Instead of continuing to restrict access to the frequency band to ensure continued development of V2X technology, the FCC acquiesced to pressure from the telecommunications industry and agreed to share the Safety Band with unlicensed WiFi. Sharing the Safety Band not only reduces the amount of spectrum available for V2X use, but it also leaves the little remaining V2X spectrum vulnerable to harmful interference. Frankly, if the interference concerns are not resolved, there may not be any usable spectrum left for V2X in the 5.9 GHz band. So much for the so-called “Safety” Band.
For an agency that has no expertise in transportation safety to make such a decision over the objections of safety experts is troubling. The FCC’s vote was a gift to corporate interests that jeopardizes ongoing efforts to modernize our transportation systems with emerging technologies that reduce congestion, cut carbon pollution, and make our streets safer for everyone. Supporting innovation and ingenuity is laudable, and these are goals I pursue in my work with the committee. Like the FCC, I too want to bolster U.S. jobs and grow our economy; but we can do that without simultaneously compromising safety.
Safety advocates have compared V2X communications technology to the next seatbelt or airbag in terms of the capacity to save lives. Eventually, this technology will contribute to safer cars with the ability to effectively look around corners and through buildings, as well as avoid collisions with automatic braking and other maneuvers.
For more than a year, a bipartisan coalition of 38 members of Congress, numerous transportation advocates, transportation agencies in all 50 states, and even former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao have raised multiple concerns about this FCC proposal. In fact, in October 2020, one month before the FCC voted to finalize the reallocation of the 5.9 GHz spectrum band, Secretary Chao wrote to FCC that its members “ignored or rejected DOT’s previous comments in this proceeding, and has failed to give sufficient weight to the Department’s expertise in matters of transportation safety.” Not only is this unacceptable on the part of the FCC, it is downright dangerous.
The FCC needs to reconsider their decision and work with safety experts to ensure we are not infringing upon the bandwidth that we need for V2X communications. In 2018, more than 37,000 people were killed in traffic crashes. The bottom line is that we have an opportunity to prevent needless traffic deaths each year by supporting the development and deployment of safety-critical technologies. We can’t afford to mess this up.
Peter DeFazio represents Oregon’s 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives and serves as the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.