Bridge Span 18-4: The Market Speaks Louder, and Faster, than Government’s Talking Cars

The federal government had already wasted 18 years and more than $1 billion in taxpayer money in a quest to create DRSC (Dedicated Short Range Communications) technology, a system for vehicle to vehicle communications. During that time, precious spectrum bandwidth, the 5.9 GHz band, was locked up and made unavailable for use by the American people, even though it was, and is, critical to expansion of faster broadband. Nevertheless, in December 2016, instead of freeing the spectrum from the aging failed experiment, the Obama administration in its very last moments, proposed a pricey mandate requiring that that all new cars and trucks have DSRC embedded in them. And for the last two years, as in the previous eighteen, nothing happened.

The Transportation Department last said it was still reviewing comments. Others have indicated a decision as to what to do next was being made at “higher levels” in the current administration. But, with spectrum being finite and obviously in short supply, why the delay? The government-created technology continues to slow innovation, just as it has done for years.

While today we stand poised to rush into a 5G world, DSRC was created when 2G was all the rage, after the FCC allocated the spectrum for use by the Department of Transportation. Back then, government decided that automated vehicles would best be served by connective technology. The marketplace thought otherwise, heading down a different road. The use of radar, cameras and lidar, (pulsating lasers), are the most active and prominent solutions being deployed today. The threat of the government mandate being imposed, in a completely different direction than the market, is creating uncertainty in transportation innovation, and resulting in lost opportunity for wi-fi.

As work began twenty years ago, the Department of Transportation only created one answer and devised only one path forward to “solve” its perceived problem of “automated vehicles” building a technology solution that could only be made effective with a massive government mandate. That is, for the system to work, all vehicles on the road would have to have the appropriate technology embedded – at a cost of over $100 billion to consumers. Additionally, billions of dollars would have to be spent on infrastructure to accommodate the new technology. Ironically, the justification used for the last two decades has been that the proposed mandate would enable DSRC technology to be deployed more quickly. That argument continues to be made even as radar and lidar vehicles are taking to the roads, leaving the government dream solution in the dust.

From the start, the DoT failed to understand that if government acts to address a problem of public concern the correct approach is to identify the problem then craft public policy that will encourage as many potential solutions as possible so that the most innovative will have the opportunity to provide the benefits to society. Rather than harnessing the opportunities of the market providing a broad swath of potential innovations, government has, not surprisingly, failed in its attempt to dictate a specific technology.

Some have suggested that perhaps the government could continue its pet project and but also allow for more current market accepted innovations to move forward by proposing that the spectrum band be shared. The idea has been sharply rebuffed by those insisting that the band must only be used for vehicle connections and safety.

The rebuke has always been odd given that the safety applications only use a small portion of the spectrum claimed by DSRC interests. As it turns out, the rest of that spectrum has been envisioned for use by commercial applications that are not safety services. Why should these services be provided special status in the market? Why should government be competing with the market at all?

The correct next step for the Department of Transportation is to acknowledge that the FCC knows the best way to deploy spectrum and offer the spectrum back so that it can actually be put to very good use. The Department should not just hold the spectrum for something later or replace the DRSC odyssey with some new scheme. The spectrum is needed now and should be used to its best purpose. The FCC made a bet on the auto industry twenty years ago, a bet that should never have been made, and now with that plan having failed long ago, they should seek to better their record and yield to market demands.

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