Guest Op-Ed: Less Spectrum Means Less Safety

We rarely hear about the 37,000 people who die every year on our roads. The statistics are staggering, which is a big part of the problem – we are numb to the numbers. But these are people – like Colorado State Trooper Cody Donahue, who I knew when I ran the Colorado Department of Transportation. He looked like a police officer straight out of central casting – well over six feet tall, barrel chested, invincible…except he wasn’t. He is, tragically, forever seared into my memory because he was hit by a truck on the side of a highway the day after Thanksgiving in 2016. I went to his funeral and saw his young children, so close in age to my own daughters.

Over the three years that I was the director in Colorado, from 2015 to 2018, 1,803 people died on the roads there. Every one of those fatalities is a person – a mom or dad, brother or sister, child or grandparent. We know precisely how to prevent these roadway crashes and save lives – ensure that vehicles can communicate with each other, with stoplights and other infrastructure, and with pedestrians and bicyclists. Technologies known as Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) communications can and do save lives, and they are up and running today in more than 30 states across the country. These V2X technologies rely on dedicated spectrum – known as the 5.9 GHz band – to ensure uninterrupted high-speed communications.

A problem with a solution – but it is not that simple. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently proposed giving away a majority of that spectrum, and it has done so without any data or analysis. The Commission is prepared to sacrifice safer roads so that unlicensed devices can operate in the 5.9 GHz band. It is a reckless decision that will put drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and first responders like Trooper Donahue at risk. This technology could have saved his life.

The Commission has made several flawed arguments to support its proposal.

First, the Commission says that the automotive industry has not done anything with the 5.9 GHz band since it was allocated for transportation safety in 1999. However, while the initial allocation occurred in 1999, it was not until 2008 that the transportation industry and incumbent satellite technologies reached a spectrum sharing agreement allowing V2X technologies to operate in the band without interference. Then, in 2012, Section 6406 of the Middle Class Tax relief and job Creation Act of 2012 required the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to study whether unlicensed devices could also operate in the 5.9 GHz band, increasing regulatory uncertainty about the future of the band. Next, Congress requested testing in 2015 regarding the operation of these unlicensed devices to ensure they would not interfere with incumbent transportation safety technologies, testing that has still not been completed by the Commission to this day. Finally, in 2018, two FCC Commissioners actually wrote a letter to Toyota, which was planning to deploy V2X in all of its vehicles starting in 2021, to suggest that the FCC could re-channelize the 5.9 GHz band, and warning Toyota to keep that in mind “when committing capital expenditures to DSRC technology”. As this timeline shows, there has been significant regulatory uncertainty surrounding the 5.9 GHz band, and the FCC’s own actions have delayed deployment of these lifesaving technologies. Despite all of this, as of 2018 there were roughly 60 V2X deployments in more than 30 states around the country.

Second, the Commission relied on an economic analysis claiming that opening up the 5.9 GHz band to unlicensed devices would provide $189.9 billion in benefits, but failed to adequately consider the economic effects of retaining the 5.9 GHz band for transportation safety. While the Commission notes that the economic analysis did not estimate the potential loss of value from a reduction in spectrum for V2X, the Department of Transportation has stated that there are $800 billion in annual economic costs from the loss of life, injuries, and other quality of life factors that result from the more than 37,000 lives lost on our nation’s roadways each year, much of which could be averted with lifesaving V2X technologies. That figure also does not include the significant economic benefits of reducing traffic congestion, another benefit of V2X technologies, which costs the nation over $140 billion annually according to the Department of Transportation.

Third, the Commission states that automated vehicles will make the safety benefits of V2X technologies unnecessary. However, V2X technologies have applications that cannot be performed by un-connected automated vehicles, such as being able to communicate with vehicles that are out of line-of-sight, providing road hazard warnings from roadside infrastructure, and allowing automated vehicles to coordinate actions rather than making decisions individually.

Additionally, both the public and private sectors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing and deploying V2X technologies. The FCC’s action would completely undermine much of this investment, discarding the significant advances that states, localities, and private companies have made in recent years.

Even Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao asked the FCC to reconsider its proposal. It “jeopardizes the significant transportation safety benefits that the allocation of this Band was meant to foster,” she wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

It is unfathomable that we would literally give away the best safety tool we have – and with it, our best chance to save tens of thousands of lives every year. For the sake of all the families who have lost someone, the FCC must prioritize safety over all else.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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