In a move that will help close the digital divide without spending taxpayer resources, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the Federal Communications Commission’s order allowing the communications industry to use part of the 5.9 GHz spectrum band that had previously been allocated to the automotive industry. The decision will free providers to put this woefully underused band to work toward broadband deployment.

The D.C. Circuit said in its ruling that it “disagree(d) on all fronts” regarding the arguments from petitioners Intelligent Transportation Society of America and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that the FCC failed to explain its decision adequately and unlawfully revoked or modified FCC licenses.

In 1999, the FCC reallocated 75 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for use in Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a technology designed to allow car-to-car communications and help prevent accidents. But that technology was scarcely used by the Department of Transportation and many car manufacturers adopted alternative technologies.

The FCC’s order (a unanimous 5-0 vote in 2020) still left 30MHz of the spectrum for car-safety technology — primarily the new Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) — while repurposing 45 MHz for Wi-Fi. This move will allow the band to assist with the growing broadband demand while leaving plenty of spectrum available for safety applications.

At the time, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao argued the FCC plan “jeopardizes the significant transportation safety benefits that the allocation of this band was meant to foster.” But the FCC noted that while Dedicated Short-Range Communications “has done virtually nothing to improve automotive safety,” C-V2X will offer direct communications between vehicles and many other objects — not just other cars but also light poles, cell towers and even pedestrians (through the cell phones in their pockets.) The growth of 5G will help make this technology a reality.

In remarks at the time of the FCC order, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (now the chairwoman) and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly pointed out that the potential for interference in the 5.9 GHz band has been dramatically reduced by technological advances. The advancement in the last 20 years also better enables spectrum sharing, allowing the FCC to explore unlicensed opportunities in the 5.9 GHz band without causing harmful interference to car-safety functions.

The number of devices that could use Wi-Fi is expected to grow from 9 billion to 50 billion over the next decade, showing the necessity for much more bandwidth. In addition to the bipartisan support the reallocation of the spectrum received at the FCC, it has garnered wide support from industry players and observers.

An ad-hoc group of companies including Google, Comcast and Microsoft called WiFi Forward dubbed the FCC ruling a “win-win, providing airwaves for wireless broadband and innovative automotive safety applications in a way that has garnered broad bipartisan and cross-industry support.”

Following the D.C. Circuit ruling, NCTA — The Internet & Television Association issued a statement calling the decision “an enormous victory for American consumers.”

“We look forward to working with the commission to build on this positive momentum and complete the 5.9 GHz proceeding,” the group said.

Kathleen Burke, policy counsel at Public Knowledge, said the court’s reaffirming the FCC’s decision “will ensure that our airwaves are being put to their best and most efficient use.”

“Spectrum is too valuable of a resource to let unsuccessful technologies control its use for decades on end,” she added.

Freeing up more spectrum for broadband deployment will help rural and underserved areas close the digital divide.