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Why is Comcast using self-driving cars to justify abolishing net neutrality?

Why is Comcast using self-driving cars to justify abolishing net neutrality?


Cars of the future need to communicate wirelessly, but they don’t need the internet to do it

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Yesterday, Comcast filed its comments in favor of the FCC’s plan to eliminate the 2015 net neutrality rules. While much of the document was devoted to arguments we’ve heard before — Comcast believes the current rules are anti-competitive and hurt investment, but generally supports the principles of net neutrality — one statement stood out.

Buried in the 161-page document was this quirky assertion (emphasis ours):

At the same time, the Commission also should bear in mind that a more flexible approach to prioritization may be warranted and may be beneficial to the public... And paid prioritization may have other compelling applications in telemedicine. Likewise, for autonomous vehicles that may require instantaneous data transmission, black letter prohibitions on paid prioritization may actually stifle innovation instead of encouraging it.

In other words, Comcast is arguing for paid prioritization and internet fast lanes to enable self-driving cars to communicate better with other vehicles and their surrounding environment, thus making them a safer and more efficient mode of transportation. Sounds reasonable enough. After all, autonomous vehicles are the next gold rush, an industry that could be worth an estimated $7 trillion. The only problem is that autonomous and connected cars don’t use wireless broadband to communicate. To be sure, all cars of the future will need to communicate wirelessly, but what Comcast won’t acknowledge is that they won’t need the internet to do it.

When cars talk with each other, they do it by exchanging data wirelessly over an unlicensed spectrum called the Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) band, using technology similar to Wi-Fi. The FCC has set aside spectrum in the 5.9GHz band specifically for this purpose, and it is only meant to be used for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) applications. That includes vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), and vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) — so cars talking to other cars, to traffic signals, to the phone in your pocket... you name it.

Image: GM

Soon enough, all cars sold in the US will be required to include V2V technology for safety purposes, if the Department of Transportation’s new rule goes into effect. The DOT says the radio technology will offer a farther range than radar or camera sensors, in addition to not being as impaired by obstacles or other vehicles.

“Since none of these messages are ever meant touch the networks of Comcast or any other carrier, their prioritization argument is irrelevant,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant Research.

“their prioritization argument is irrelevant.”

That’s not to say that Comcast, AT&T, and other internet service providers aren’t responsible for any of the data that is transmitted or collected by autonomous and connected cars. But the data that does touch their networks doesn’t tend to require the fast lanes that the ISPs want because they aren’t the safety-critical messages that need prioritization. “The communications that do go over the network, such as requests-for-rides, [over-the-air] updates of maps and firmware, and telemetry collection are not time critical and do not require such prioritization,” Abuelsamid said.

Michael Ramsey, a transportation and mobility analyst for Gartner, had a similar assessment. “Almost every autonomous vehicle in consideration is designed to run without some kind of instantaneous transmission from the cloud,” he said. “It’s not practical, even if it is possible, to have much more than mapping information sent down to a vehicle in operation.”

So why would Comcast use autonomous vehicles to justify its push for paid prioritization? Abeulsamid suspects an ulterior motive. “Wireless carriers have been trying to snatch back that 5.9GHz spectrum to use it for other purposes that they can make money on, and if that happens, it will be a real problem for automated vehicles,” he said.

LTE-V is exactly what it sounds like

A spokesperson for Comcast clarified that it was referring to LTE-Vehicular (LTE-V) communication, not DSRC, in its use of autonomous vehicles as an example of potential applications for paid fast lanes. LTE-V is exactly what it sounds like: a system where cars communicate to cellular towers over LTE. The only problem is this technology is still under development and has no current application. Meanwhile, automakers are growing increasingly attached to DSRC as their preferred method of V2X communication.

General Motors announced earlier this year that its 2017 Cadillac CTS sedans would come equipped with DSRC-enabled V2V technology that will allow them to detect potential hazards, like slippery roads or disabled vehicles. Toyota already has several models equipped with DSRC in Japan, which are used for cooperative adaptive cruise control along with basic safety messages. More recently, Volkswagen announced it would launch DSRC in 2019, and PSA and Renault have started using DSRC for V2I communication in Europe.

While the American automotive lobby is strongly in favor of DSRC, some European carmakers have shown an interest in exploring LTE-V, including Audi, BMW, and Daimler, as well as some wireless carriers. But would the abolishment of net neutrality and the creation of paid fast lanes help speed the adoption of LTE-V communication in cars? Not necessarily.

LTE-V is seen by experts as useful for low-latency V2I messages, which negates the argument for paid prioritization — essentially leaving us where we started. “The V2I messages that go over the network don’t have the latency requirements,” Abuelsamid said, “so paid prioritization provides no benefit.”

Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.