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In race to V2X, wireless industry resurrects Chinese boogeyman

In their campaign to get another favorable ruling from federal regulators, a group of US wireless industry lobbyists is dusting off a time-tested argument to further their goals: China could surpass America in the deployment of "vehicle to everything" (V2X) services.

It's the same argument the US wireless industry very effectively applied to 5G technology. But whether it will gain any traction in the V2X sector remains to be seen.

Speaking different languages
At issue is exactly how cars should communicate with each other. It's an important issue considering the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated in 2016 that the successful deployment of V2X technology could significantly reduce the 37,000 people killed in car crashes every year. After all, if cars could talk to each other, or talk to stoplights and other roadway infrastructure, drivers could be warned about fresh accidents, pedestrians trying to cross the street, or other emergency situations.

To be clear, this isn't a new idea. The Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) standard, based on the 802.11 Wi-Fi protocol, was introduced roughly 20 years ago with exactly this notion in mind. US regulators even set aside some spectrum in the 5.9GHz band for cars to talk to each other using the "language" of DSRC.

However, like pig Latin, DSRC never really caught on.

And then 4G came along. Companies like Qualcomm created a version of the global networking standard specifically for V2X applications, dubbed Cellular V2X or C-V2X. The only problem? C-V2X is a different "language" than DSRC, which put automakers in a Betamax vs. VHS position.

Forcing a decision
The DSRC vs. C-V2X debate raged for years, with companies like Toyota, Renault and NXP rallying around DSRC and companies like Ford, BMW and Qualcomm rallying around C-V2X. And then the FCC waded into the debate last year with a sledgehammer: Of the original 75MHz in the 5.9GHz band allotted to DSRC, the agency proposed reallocating 45MHz of it for unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi. The FCC said just 20MHz should be set aside for C-V2X, and the remaining 10MHz should be used for either DSRC or C-V2X.

The prospect of losing almost half of the spectrum allocated to their V2X plans rallied the automobile industry against the FCC. In March of this year, amid a raging pandemic, two of the world's biggest automotive associations – Global Automakers and The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers – said they would merge to form the new Alliance for Automotive Innovation. The new association covers virtually every major automaker, including General Motors, Ford and Toyota. Importantly, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI) promised to deploy at least 5 million V2X radios on vehicles and roadway infrastructure within the next five years – as long as the FCC lets the auto industry keep all 75MHz in the 5.9GHz band.

And what of the DSRC vs. C-V2X debate? The AAI attempted to "split the baby" by proposing to allow its members to choose between DSRC or C-V2X during the next five years. After that, the group would pick one single technology to use in the 5.9GHz band going forward. The other technology would be phased out over the next ten years.

Meaning, the AAI wants to just kick the Betamax vs. VHS can down the road, a problem for another day.

The Chinese boogeyman
Here's where the "race to V2X" comes in. As the FCC considers a potential ruling on the issue, and the auto industry drags its feet, some players in the US wireless industry are beginning to sound the alarm about China in order to speed things up.

"China has already allocated 5.9GHz spectrum for C-V2X Direct, and Chinese automakers are moving forward with plans to mass-produce vehicles equipped with this technology," the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) wrote to the FCC this summer. The 5GAA was founded in 2016 by the likes of Audi, BMW, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia and Qualcomm, though today it counts more than 100 members.

If the 5GAA's language sounds familiar, it should: The "race to 5G" has dominated federal telecommunications policy discussions in the US for years. For example, T-Mobile's Neville Ray recently warned that 5G will determine whether the world's next Google, Apple, Amazon or Uber is created in the US or in China.

During a V2X virtual event this week, Qualcomm sought to highlight the growing ecosystem around the C-V2X standard. The company pointed to a new C-V2X test in Virginia featuring tower company American Tower that will join similar efforts in locations like Colorado, Georgia and Michigan.

And Qualcomm's top policy executive, Dean Brenner, said the threat of losing a leading position to China is "spurring the FCC to make a decision" on the V2X topic. He said he's "cautiously optimistic" that the FCC will make some kind of V2X decision by the end of 2020.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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