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DC Circuit Court Upholds FCC Spectrum Reallocation

August 12, 2022 by Madeline Hughes
DC Circuit Court Upholds FCC Spectrum Reallocation
The federal courthouse in Washington DC. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday solidified the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to reallocate spectrum that went largely unused.

“I am pleased with the court’s decision, which upholds the FCC’s broad authority to manage the nation’s airwaves in the public interest,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in an email statement.

The case brought by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials last year sought to stop the reallocation of a band of spectrum — the 5.9 GHz. 

The band of spectrum was originally reserved in 1999 for automakers to develop technology to help cars to talk to each other and avoid crashes. However, it’s also used for other technology, like amateur radio.

The 5.9 GHz band of spectrum went largely unused by car manufacturers.

According to the commission’s filings, as of 2020, “no commercially-marketed vehicles” used that band of spectrum for the safety features it set out to allow in the original 1999 allocation. Instead, newer cars are using other technology like radar, cameras and sensors — not spectrum — to create those safety features, according to the commission.

This prompted the commission to proceed with a unanimous bipartisan vote to reallocate 60% of the band for items such as wireless internet routers, still allowing some of the spectrum for car manufacturers.

“Here, the FCC explained that the use of the spectrum changed greatly in the last 20 years (specifically, demand by unlicensed devices such as Wi-Fi routers has grown) and that intelligent transportation systems have not developed as anticipated,” wrote Justice Justin Walker in the opinion. 

“The FCC thus reasonably determined that ‘reserving the entire 5.9 GHz band for [intelligent transportation systems] is not the most efficient or effective use of that band” and that “changes to the band plan [the FCC] adopted over 20 years ago are essential to maximize the use of this valuable spectrum for the public’s greatest well-being,’” he continued.

Rosenworcel took this as a win for the commission as it looks to continue reallocating and auctioning off spectrum to grow the wireless economy

“Today’s decision recognizes that by allowing this spectrum to evolve we can advance newer safety technologies and grow our wireless economy,” she said.

Others including The Internet & Television Association are heralding this as a win for Americans whose lives rely more on spectrum in the increasingly digitized world.

“The D.C. Circuit’s decision to uphold the FCC’s 5.9 GHz order is an enormous victory for American consumers. The commission’s unanimous, bipartisan order modernizes a band that was primarily unused for over 20 years, and today’s court decision enables that important 5.9 GHz spectrum to provide consumers with even more reliable high-speed Wi-Fi and access to next-generation automotive safety applications,” the association said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Commission to build on this positive momentum and complete the 5.9 GHz proceeding.”

Madeline may be reached at Maddie@thewellnews.com

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