For us tail-end baby boomers, it’s probably true our view of what life might be like now was influenced by the “Back to the Future” series. Watching ‘Doc’ Brown and Marty travel just a few decades forward in time to a place where the Cubbies won the World Series, hoverboards were ubiquitous, and sneakers laced themselves seemed so wonderfully realistic we believed it was possible.
To be sure, some of the things depicted in “Back to the Future II” did come to pass. The Cubs did win a World Series – though not in the year predicted in the film. And technology has brought about other changes that, while not exactly like what was seen on screen, come close enough for government work that filmmakers Bob Zemeckis and Stephen Spielberg deserve a pat on the back for the visionary insight into how things might be.
One thing they got wrong was the whole business of flying cars. In the movie, they seemed to be standard transportation. In reality, they are just as tethered to the nation’s highways and byways as ever, with most of the innovations going toward fuel economy and alternative power plants. The idea of the airborne vehicle just never got off the ground.
Innovation, especially in the wireless sector, makes up for some of the disappointment. Surprisingly though, the intersection of communications technology and the automotive industry has not developed in the way people thought it might 20 years ago. That’s when the Federal Communications Commission established technology-specific rules for what it called “Dedicated Short Range Communications” in the 5.9 GHz band, reserving the space to allow cars, as it was put at the time, “to talk to one another” and to develop safety-related technologies.
A worthwhile effort to be sure, but other than a few heavily subsidized pilot projects that seem to hold little promise, there hasn’t been much movement toward the original vision, especially in the area of auto safety. At the same time, automakers have used other parts of the spectrum not reserved for these purposes to produce tremendous advances popular with consumers (like radar) and are using non-spectrum dependent tech like lidar, sensors, and cameras. Moreover, new auto communications technologies like CV2X want to access the 5.9 GHz band but can’t under the current rules that allow only for the original DSRC.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who deserves great credit for keeping adaptations to the Internet from being slowed by bureaucratic impulses, is poised to break the logjam. Rather than allow for the 5.9 GHz band to continue to go unused, he’s apparently ready to engage in rulemaking that would carve off the lower end of the band for additional wireless broadband use, while preserving the upper reaches for future automotive safety needs.
Putting new Wi-Fi in 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band will create the country’s first contiguous 160 MHz channel, something that is critical to the deployment of next-generation Wi-Fi 6, which is expected to bring gigabit and high-capacity Wi-Fi to American consumers. The unlicensed spectrum available in this area can be used to support 5G deployment. Cisco reportedly expects 71 percent of 5G mobile data will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2022 – meaning current unlicensed spectrum resources will be insufficient to keep up with the changes.
It’s an excellent compromise, one that leaves the door open to future developments while recognizing the need for new broadband spectrum that exists today. In the two decades since the DSRC allocation, Wi-Fi has become a core communications technology relied upon in homes, businesses, factories, airports, and hospitals across the globe. It contributes more than $525 billion to the U.S. economy on an annual basis.
It’s earned the opportunity to expand even further.