Attention Automakers: Ajit Pai is Not Your Friend
Two decades ago, the Federal Communications Commission decided to allocate a portion of the radio frequency spectrum for Dedicated Short Range Communications ( DSRC). The plan was to utilize that slice of the airwaves for ultra-modern automotive technologies relating to vehicle-to-vehicle and/or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a whole lot of activity on those channels.
The automotive industry was concerned it might need dedicated frequencies for use in autonomous-vehicle applications or some, yet unknown, technological advancement. But cable companies are annoyed that it’s being “wasted” and have started to antsy. They’ve asked the FCC to revoke carmakers’ exclusive rights to the frequencies and reallocate the majority of the 5.9-GHz band to the Wi-Fi systems that currently carry internet traffic for cable customers.
Hoping to encourage the commission to see things its way, Ford took FCC Chairman Ajit Pai out for a ride in an extra-special F-150 to plead its case. However, I feel like I can already predict whose side he’s going to take on this issue… and it isn’t going to be the automakers’.
Rather than locking Pai inside the truck until he caves, Ford decided to show off the cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) tech it plans to deploy inside the U.S. for 2022. While the brunt of C-V2X’s magic won’t reveal itself until it can be networked with compatible systems, Ford claims it provides the ability for similarly quipped vehicles to communicate, as well as directly connect with traffic management infrastructure (traffic lights, speed cameras, etc). It also suggested that pedestrians could be better served by having their phones transmit their location to vehicles, helping autonomous systems to avoid disasters.
“Driver-assist technologies today and autonomous vehicles of the future utilize on-board sensors much in the way people use their eyes to navigate complex environments,” Don Butler, executive director of Ford’s connected vehicle program, said earlier this month. “C-V2X could complement these systems in ways similar to how our sense of hearing complements our vision to improve our ability to operate in a complex world.”
Unfortunately, I get the sense that automakers are chasing a dead end with Pai.
“The spectrum, for 22 years, has not reached its highest valued use, and that’s part of the reason why I think it’s important to have an open conversation,” Pai said at a Senate hearing last week. “I’m not saying what the answer should be, I’m simply saying let’s ask the questions that would enable us to have an informed conversation.”
Mr. Pai has routinely been accused of being a corporate shill for telecom providers. While the initial complains revolved around his former role as a lawyer for Verizon being at odds with the FCC’s mission, the took additional heat for his handling of net neutrality. Pai repeatedly pushed to revisit the issue, a move which was broadly viewed as him siding with cable companies. Ultimately, the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality rules — enacted just two years prior — in December of 2017… but not before a Pew Research study showed a ludicrously large portion of the millions of public comments sent to the FCC on the matter were fake.
“Some 57 [percent] of the comments utilized either duplicate email addresses or temporary email addresses created with the intention of being used for a short period of time and then discarded. In addition, many individual names appeared thousands of times in the submissions,” explains the study, adding that there was “clear evidence of organized campaigns to flood the comments with repeated messages” aimed at encouraging the FCC to revoke the standing rules.
After the vote, Pai acknowledged the comments were fake. Several days later, video footage leaked of him kidding about being a corporate asset during a Federal Communications Bar Association dinner. The prerecorded comedy skit incorporated Verizon executive Kathleen Grillo — who joking said the company always wanted to “brainwash and groom a Verizon puppet to install as FCC chairman.”
It was an odd decision and wouldn’t be the last cringe-inducing video featuring Pai from that period.
While there’s more relevant background on Pai available, you get the gist as to why I’m not confident automotive manufacturers will be able to hold onto the 5.9-GHz band. In a recent statement to Bloomberg, Ford claimed it was “critical” for the FCC to allow the cellular-based method to use the airwaves because it will eventually become the dominant technology for connected vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure. Most other OEMs have been inclined to agree, even if they aren’t working on the technology themselves. Meanwhile, some additional support is coming from the Department of Transportation.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao reportedly telephoned Pai to ask that the FCC not to use its June meeting to advance talks that could remove automakers’ ability to utilize the bandwidth. Other DOT officials have weighed in publicly, including Policy Undersecretary Derek Kan, who said “Preserving the spectrum for transportation safety, which can save lives, is probably more important than slightly faster Wi-Fi.”
While Pai hasn’t openly endorsed either position, he’s been dropping some unsubtle hints. Last month, during a an event that celebrated the enhanced Wi-Fi signals used in some hotel lobbies, he stated he was “quite skeptical” that maintaining the status quo for automakers was a good idea. Since then, he’s been talking about the importance of “starting a conversation” about the 5.9-GHz band.
He does, however, have one of the best fake smiles I’ve ever seen.
Grateful to @Ford for demonstrating their “cellular vehicle-to-everything” technology in an F-150. ’s potential underscores the importance of the @FCC starting an open conversation about the future of the 5.9 GHz band. pic.twitter.com/wXUI0snDkf
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) June 7, 2019
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So basically, Pai is laying the groundwork to make the auto sector bid for the spectrum they previously were getting for free.