The author is director, automotive connected mobility, for TechInsights. This article (except for the postscript) originally appeared in Automotive News and is published with permission.
The Federal Communication Commission rules the airwaves in the U.S., making decisions regarding radio frequency allocations and the way that the spectrum can be used. These administrative decisions are often highly technical but sometimes get caught up in lobbying interests fraught with emotions, politics and financial considerations.
Let’s consider two FCC proceedings impacting the all-important automotive space. Recently, the agency has played a unique role in the auto industry regarding connected cars and a proposed innovation for FM radio in the vehicle and elsewhere.
The first matter regards sharing a slice of the 5.9-GHz spectrum with in-auto Wi-Fi applications for competing technologies connecting the vehicle to everything, or C-V2X, and dedicated short-range communication, or DSRC.
C-V2X and DSRC were contending for control of the emerging vehicle-to-vehicle communications marketplace dependent on access to a substantial portion of that wireless spectrum band. In short, the technology allows vehicles to communicate with each other and everything around them, critical for in-vehicle road safety emergency alerting.
The second is whether to allow FM stations to use innovative technology to deliver content that would enable listeners to hear geotargeted news, traffic, weather alerts, programming and ads on their radios to enhance in-car listening. This decision, too, has automotive relevance since most radio listening in the U.S. occurs in cars.
Opponents of the FCC taking spectrum away from the auto sector argued that millions of lives were at stake if the agency acted. Two years ago, the FCC’s response was to make a practical and impartial decision that ultimately went with one of the competing technologies.
While it was regarded by some in the auto industry as a disaster, the clarity the FCC brought forth accelerated adoption plans among automakers and states, with several requesting waivers to proceed to implementation and deployment.
A similar conundrum has arisen with the ongoing debate over FM geotargeting technology for radio broadcasts — an innovation called ZoneCasting, developed by GeoBroadcast Solutions to allow broadcasters to segment their listening audiences for hyperlocal content.
In the case of FM geotargeting, no new allocation of spectrum is at stake and no new consumer devices are needed. It can be a seamless value-add to the in-car listening experience. Only FM broadcasters need to do anything, and that technology choice is voluntary.
For more than two years, the FCC has been considering whether to allow radio stations to adopt FM geotargeting just as local TV stations have been able to do.
Once again, though, forces of opposition are swarming to defeat what is seen as a threat to the status quo of radio advertising — sold nationally or regionally but not hyperlocally like most other digital advertising media.
Currently, advertisers purchasing spots on radio stations are forced to advertise to all listeners in the station’s entire coverage area for whom many the ad is irrelevant. This is especially true for political advertisers and hurts small and African American businesses that are prohibited by cost from buying radio ads. For example, few people in Maryland are keen to listen to Virginia political ads in the Washington, D.C., radio market. The resulting limitations have contributed to a downward spiral in radio advertising revenue.
Radio stations that adopt FM geotargeting will be able to segment their broadcasts geographically to send more targeted information and advertising. The solution, which has been tested and has proven its efficacy in a variety of conditions, would allow for more relevant traffic, weather and news information to be broadcast — along with more relevant, local advertising.
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This has unique importance to the automotive industry. Drivers will be able to receive increasingly targeted and relevant traffic and emergency reports along with advertising.
The opponents of FM geotargeting allege it either will not work — causing interference — or it will work too well and undermine the economics of broadcast radio advertising.
As in the case of the automotive spectrum issue decided two years ago, the voices of opposition have more than a hint of ulterior motive. We all look to the FCC for a practical and impartial decision — one that is nuanced with vision and wisdom and made to foster innovation.
The studies have been conducted. It’s now time for the FCC to speak for the broad economic and social interests of broadcasters and consumers alike. The wise move with the widest benefit will be to adopt the rule change and allow FM geotargeting rules to be adopted as proposed.
Several weeks ago the FCC granted waivers for multiple car makers, state transportation departments and C-V2X suppliers to commence deploying cellular-based C-V2X solutions using the upper 30 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band in advance of specific rules being developed by the agency. Audi, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover were among the companies seeking waivers.
The agency stated in its announcement: “We intend by this order to enable a fast transition to the next generation of technology in this spectrum band while the commission contemplates the framework for final rules.” The announcement was followed — a week or two later — by Qualcomm’s acquisition of C-V2X and DSRC semiconductor supplier Autotalks for an estimated $350M.
The acquisition was an immediate validation of the agency’s decision and is likely to be followed by announcements of C-V2X deployments in vehicles and infrastructure throughout the U.S. in the interest of enhancing driving safety.
The broadcast radio industry can only hope to be blessed by a similarly sanguine outcome for Zonecasting. It’s worth noting that the Zonecasting proposition will only enable three minutes/hour of targeted broadcasting. It’s a small change that may have a big impact.