Wheeler Outlines Plan for 5.9-GHz Testing

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission is moving ahead with testing that could free up more spectrum for WiFi, cable’s primary mobile broadband play, but at a deliberate, crash-avoidant pace.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, joined by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, outlined a three-phase device-testing regime to potentially open up new spectrum in the 5.9-Gigahertz band for more cable WiFi hotspots without interfering with automobile crash-avoidance systems. That’s according to a letter from the three officials outlining the proposal to Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).

The goal is also clash avoidance, given that the cable and automotive industries have come together after early tensions over whether the band could be opened up to unlicensed without threatening those nascent intelligent automotive systems.

Thune and other lawmakers had worked with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, automakers and others last fall on an agreement on the principles behind “fairly administered” testing that could determine “whether various sharing proposals do or do not cause harmful interference to incumbents,” and Wheeler responded with a plan. The NCTA had no comment on the plan outlined in the letter.

Wheeler et. al. told Thune that they had come up with a “path forward” responsive to that agreement, which includes the FCC taking the lead on the new tests. The Department of Transportation has already tested dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) systems like those on intelligent cars.

The FCC, in “close consultation” with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, will conduct a “complementary FCC-led test to combine with that DOT data for some real-world performance info on unlicensed device operation in the band,” the officials said.

But they also made clear the new spectrum will not be freed up until that testing is complete.

The FCC will begin by seeking new comment — refreshing the record, the agencies said — on the 5.9 GHz rulemaking, as well as soliciting prototype unlicensed devices for testing.

The Transportation Department will collaborate with the FCC and the NTIA on the testing, which will be in three phases: 1.) device testing at the FCC’s Columbia, Md., laboratory to assess how the devices avoid interfering with DSRC; 2.) tests of vehicles at a DOT facility to determine whether that avoidance is effective in the field; and 3.) additional vehicle tests, using many more vehicles.

Unlicensed devices will have to pass all three tests “before reaching any conclusions as to whether unlicensed devices can safely operate in the 5.9 GHz band” to insure “the future automotive safety and efficiency of the traveling public,” the agencies told Thune.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.