The U.S. telecommunications regulator voted on Thursday to split a block of the 5.9 GHz spectrum that was, since 1999, previously reserved for technology to allow vehicles to exchange data about location, speed and direction.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 5-0 to advance the plan. Until now, this spectrum band had been largely unused by the automakers, thus unlocking it WiFi usage was described as a “balanced approach” that “maximizes the value of the band for the American people” by FFC Chairman Ajit Pai. 

Opening up this key spectrum band presents a great opportunity for major telecommunications companies, ensuring that the next generation of vehicles can provide the WiFi capacity that their customers demand.

However, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao condemned the decision and remains in favour of preserving this band for the life-saving technologies it was originally intended for. She suggests that failure to do so could result in “thousands more deaths annually on the road and millions more injuries than would be the case otherwise.” 

The majority of automakers share this view. In a statement from two auto industry trade groups, the groups said this decision “risks lives, slows innovation and runs counter to what the commission has heard from safety and technical experts.”

This is the latest development in a saga of back-and-forth between regulators and the automotive industry in the US. In 2016, the Transportation Department proposed mandating all future vehicles to use dedicated short range communications (DSRC) to send and receive data between vehicles, but this proposal has not been acted upon by US administrators as of 2019. In fact, several automotive companies, including giants such as Ford Motor Co., now support a plan to shift the auto safety spectrum away from DSRC altogether, to an innovative new technology called Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X). This technology would provide a higher level of predictability for improved road safety and a path towards autonomous driving. 

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