On July 13, the United States (“US”) Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued a decision allocating a contiguous 5 GHz band of radio frequency spectrum for vehicular radar operations. The decision implemented in the US a 2015 decision by the International Telecommunications Union (“ITU”) to harmonize such spectrum globally for vehicular radar use, making it possible for such systems to be manufactured much more cheaply than in the past dues to global economies-of-scale. This decision is important because the very large amount of contiguous spectrum allocated allows for high resolution. High resolution enables vehicles to determine with greater specificity the objects that exist in their immediate environment, an important element for the safety of automated and autonomous driving. The FCC’s decision also marks the first time that the US has granted interference protection to vehicular radars. Prior to this decision, all vehicular radar systems on US roadways have been required to operate solely as low-power “unlicensed” devices, without any formal rights to be free from interference. In recognition of the need to ensure the safest operating environment possible for vehicular radars, the FCC denied requests to allow fixed radar systems to operate ubiquitously in the 76-81 GHz band under the same technical rules as vehicular radar. Instead, the FCC allowed only very limited non-vehicular radar use for foreign object debris detection on airport runways, where vehicular radars are not likely to be present. In this decision, the FCC consolidated all long-range and short-range vehicular radar operations in the 76-81 GHz band, removing such devices from the 16.2-17.7 GHz and 46.7-46.9 GHz bands, and establishing a gradual phase out (with grandfathering for the life of the equipment) of unlicensed wideband and ultra-wideband (“UWB”) vehicular radar operations in the 23.12-29.0 GHz band and the 22-29 GHz bands. Finally, the FCC left intact existing rules that allow for the operation of so-called 24 GHz “narrowband” vehicular radar. These legacy systems, which are widespread and operate on an unlicensed basis under Sections 15.245 and 15.249 of the FCC’s rules, can continue to be sold and operated in perpetuity in the US.
The potential impact of the FCC’s decision could be significant. With 5 GHz of contiguous, globally-harmonized high-range spectrum and assured protection from interference, vehicular radars will be more precise and reliable (and potentially cheaper to produce) than ever before. The propagation characteristics of the spectrum at that range, which causes signals to drop off at shorter distances than the 24 GHz band, should make coexistence among different varieties of vehicular radars easier to achieve and make it possible to reduce the size of the devices for maximum flexibility of installation. The certainty and predictability that comes with the FCC’s decision should also promote innovation and long-term growth in the vehicular radar supplier market generally and make it more likely that these safety technologies will be installed on not just luxury vehicles, but on more affordable vehicles as well. Importantly, once the adopted rules go into effect, vehicular radar equipment will be “licensed-by-rule” on a primary basis under Part 95 of the FCC’s rules, meaning that their operations will be afforded the highest level of interference protection by the FCC but without the need for automobile manufacturers or vehicle drivers to apply to the FCC for operator licenses. The FCC’s decision should help foster technological advances such as collision avoidance, parking aid, pedestrian detection, and adaptive cruise control systems, among others.
To maximize the value of this regulatory shift, automobile manufacturers and vehicular radar suppliers should keep a few considerations in mind. First, although individual operator licenses will not be required, it will be necessary for the sellers and importers of new 76-81 GHz equipment to secure FCC equipment certifications, which can be obtained from any FCC-accredited Telecommunications Certification Body (or “TCB”) around the world. Second, automobile manufacturers and vehicular radar suppliers that currently offer 24 GHz wideband and UWB vehicular radar equipment must be mindful that the FCC will no longer grant new equipment certifications for such equipment “on or after one year” from the date that the decision is published in the Federal Register. We expect the last day for such new equipment certifications will fall in August or September 2018. However, any such equipment that is already installed or in use will have its operations “grandfathered” for the life of the equipment, and certain “permissive” changes to the equipment will be allowed until January 1, 2022. Third, beginning January 1, 2022, the FCC will prohibit the manufacture, importation, marketing, sale, or instillation of 24 GHz wideband and UWB vehicular radars. However, an exception to this prohibition permits, for the life of the vehicle, repairs and replacements of defective vehicular radars that were installed on or before the cut-off date, but only if the defective equipment cannot be repaired or replaced with equipment designed to operate in the 76-81 GHz band. Automobile manufacturers and vehicular radar suppliers should be prepared to make plans now regarding how best to utilize their existing 24 GHz wideband and UWB technologies during the transition period and how best to handle any consumer concerns regarding the phase out and grandfathering of that equipment.