Recognizing that vehicular and airport-based radar systems designed to prevent collisions should be free from interference and should be permitted to operate at optimum frequency levels, the FCC, in a Report & Order released July 13, 2017, elevated these systems from unlicensed to licensed status and expanded the assigned spectrum to include the entirety of the 76-81 GHz bands. In doing so, it relegated certain amateur radio operations to secondary status, eliminated the vehicular radar operations from their legacy 16.2-17.7 GHz and 46.7-46.9 GHz bands and began to phase out unlicensed wideband and ultra-wideband (UWB) vehicular radar operations in the 22-29 GHz bands. Additionally, once the Order is effective, vehicular radar devices will be “licensed-by-rule” under Part 95 of the FCC’s rules, which means that vehicle manufacturers can access the entire available spectrum and will not be required to apply to the FCC for individual station licenses as long as the operations are in accordance with the applicable service rules. Significantly, this decision also ensures that spectrum for vehicular radar applications in the United States is harmonized with the global use of such spectrum pursuant to a 2015 decision by the International Telecommunications Union.

Vehicular radar systems have been in existence since the early 2000s, but their use significantly increased over the past couple of years, in part as a result of the FCC’s 2012 Report and Order that allowed for greater technical flexibility for unlicensed vehicular radar operations in the 76-77 GHz band. A significant number of vehicles are now equipped with some type of collision avoidance system or adaptive cruise control systems reliant on long-range vehicular radar (LRR). The use of vehicular radar has been integral to the advent of self-driving cars and “auto pilot” systems. To harmonize the United States’ use of the 76-81 GHz band with the rest of the world, pursuant to the ITU direction, and to encourage the proliferation of new and innovative vehicular radar technologies, the FCC allocated a contiguous 5 GHz band of spectrum for such technologies.

LRR vehicular radar technologies used for collision avoidance systems or adaptive cruise control systems previously operated within the 76-77 GHZ band. However, short-range vehicular radar (SRR) high-definition technology, which can detect objects in close proximity to the vehicle, such as pedestrians and bicycles, need four gigahertz of bandwidth to operate optimally. Therefore, the decision to allocate the entirety of the 76-81 GHz band will optimize use of both SRR and LRR vehicular radar technologies.

In addition to vehicular operations with primary licensed status within the 76-81 GHz band, fixed radar operations at airports that detect foreign object debris (FOD) on airport runways and radar that monitors aircraft movement on the taxiway, will also have primary license status within the 5 GHz band. However, to try to avoid potential interference with vehicular radar operations, fixed-radar FOD operations will be limited to airport locations.

With the United States’ alignment with the rest of the world in utilizing the 76-81 GHz band for vehicular radar operations, vehicular radar equipment manufacturers should realize efficiencies in the production of such equipment. Furthermore, the propagation characteristics of spectrum in the 76-81 GHz band (waves only travel very short distances before dissipating) means that the radiofrequency ecosystem can support a substantial increase in the use of vehicular radar without any out-of-band interference concerns.

These changes should provide further incentive for vehicle manufactures to increase the use of these innovative safety technologies. FCC equipment authorization will continue to be necessary prior to the use of vehicular radar equipment.