The Federal Communications Commission voted Wednesday to open a new chunk of the airwaves for wireless Internet, a step designed to immediately make it easier for people to get online but which critics say could imperil future highway safety technology with the potential to save thousands of lives a year.
The airwaves at issue have been dedicated to highway safety since 1999, with the idea that they could be used for vehicles to send warnings to one another or let firetrucks turn traffic lights green as they speed to an emergency.
But the safety band, as the airwaves are known, has yet to live up to that promise.
Since 1999 a new wireless era has arrived, with surging demand for frequencies from mobile phones and other devices that connect over Wi-Fi. In response the FCC has moved to open airwaves to new uses. Those at issue in Wednesday's vote are suited to new 5G technologies that promise connected factories and homes via ultra-fast links.
And FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need for people to have reliable Internet access at home. Earlier, Pai in a blog post said allowing more uses of the swath assigned to vehicles can help boost fast Internet connections "in homes, schools, small businesses, and health care facilities."
The commission's approach had the support of wireless Internet providers and others in the technology industry, but also faced opposition from a coalition of automakers, highway safety advocates, members of Congress who oversee transportation, and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
"The FCC has just been full speed ahead, and we're not going to worry about data or what safety experts are saying," said Shailen Bhatt, the chief executive of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.
The original safety band consisted of 75 megaherz of spectrum for vehicles to be able to share messages using a technology called dedicated short-range communications.
The FCC's action Wednesday will make two major changes: It will take away 45 MHz from auto safety and open it up to uses like Wi-Fi and wireless broadband, and it will allocate the remaining 30 MHz for a new connected-vehicle standard known as cellular vehicle-to-everything or C-V2X.
The plan to change how the spectrum is allocated has created divisions within the federal government.
In an internal memo, a Treasury official raised concerns about the FCC's decision. The official wrote that it would seem to do little to improve Internet access and put the United States at an economic disadvantage with China, which is also developing connected-car technology.
And in a recent letter, Chao wrote that the FCC's approach put her department's efforts to reduce traffic deaths "in peril."
"The Commission's benefit-cost analysis is also fatally flawed," Chao wrote, arguing that it had underplayed the safety benefits of connected-car technology while discounting the costs of switching to new technologies.
Information for this article was contributed by Todd Shields and Keith Laing of Bloomberg News.