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When Counting Broadband Users, Remember Connected Vehicles

Fast, low-latency communication is essential for supporting connected vehicles and other next-gen transportation technologies. But the intelligent roadways that will carry it are developing more slowly.

Aerial view of an illustration of cars on a road with lines connecting them.
Broadband infrastructure may be the latest public utility connecting homes and businesses, but it’s also foundational to the emergence of “smart roads” and autonomous vehicles (AVs).

Much of the discussion around broadband expansion has been focused, appropriately, on connecting large swaths of the nation with no Internet or less-than-stellar infrastructure. But, technology panelists said Wednesday, the need for rapid connectivity infrastructure is essential to much of the real-time, vehicle-to-everything environment needed to support the widespread application of AVs — and to emerging transportation innovations like drones or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

“When we’re talking about a resilient and adaptable urban environment, having a great service with low latency, high speed is really important when we’re processing that kind of data,” said India Herdman, senior manager of policy affairs with the Consumer Technology Association, speaking on a panel hosted by Broadband Breakfast, a news and policy organization focused on broadband technology.

“The biggest thing with smart cities is, they use real-time data to make decisions in the moment,” she added.

Much of the conversation on the panel, “Smart Cities and Transportation,” centered on the intersection of smart cities, transportation, and the broadband technology needed to support developments like connected vehicles. But the discussion also focused on what’s casually called the “spectrum,” in broadband tech circles.

The spectrum is an intelligent transportation communication spectrum for wireless technology, at the 5.9-gigahertz bandwidth, that enables the kinds of high-speed and low-latency communication among vehicles, infrastructure and vulnerable road users — otherwise known as “cellular vehicle to everything” (CV2X).

This technology supports features like traffic light pre-emption for emergency or transit vehicles, alerts for school buses, and other roadway communications. And, said panelist John Kuzin, vice president, spectrum policy and regulatory counsel at Qualcomm, it “will play very well with autonomous vehicles.”

“Spectrum is the real estate that you build upon,” said David Pickeral, co-founder of Sheeva.AI, who called it the “anchor for everything” in next-gen communications for AVs.

“The ability for vehicles to exchange information with each other in better than real time is going to require a low latency, high throughput environment, so that they can make instantaneous decisions,” he explained.

The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), Arizona Commerce Authority and eX2 Technology recently announced a partnership to deploy more than 400 miles of fiber-optic communication infrastructure along interstate highways to push out middle-mile broadband to rural homes and businesses and support connected vehicle technologies.

But the kinds of intelligent roadways Pickeral and others described are still rather limited in their development — in part because upgrading hard infrastructure like highways happens slowly.

“I think we’ll see some [smart roads] sporadically,” said Herdman. “But infrastructure is such a locally driven funding issue. I think it’s very dependent on the community.”

And when it comes to smart transportation, said Pickeral, the private sector tends to lead the way.

“I think driving smart vehicles is going to come from the vehicle side, driven by the OEMs and the tech community, rather than governments,” he said.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.