Autonomous vehicles will fail to reach their full potential until ubiquitous and extremely reliable high-speed communications networks with very low latency are available. These networks are key to facilitating the realtime, instantaneous communications among vehicles and supporting infrastructure that must exist before vehicles can continuously and autonomously traverse city streets void of vigilant human oversight.

The deployment of 5G (fifth generation) cellular technologies will represent a giant leap forward toward the use of autonomous vehicles for swift, efficient, and safe travel. However, the successful deployment of 5G (and subsequent) technologies depends upon the support of, and coordination among, federal, state, and local governments. Without this support and coordination, only the most lucrative markets will likely benefit from new technologies, and autonomous vehicles will remain technologically insular due to the scale of telecommunications investment required for the mass autonomous vehicle market.

In the United States, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) first set aside spectrum, in the 5.9 GHz band, to support transportation uses in 1999. Under the FCC’s rules, the 5.9 GHz band is reserved for DSRC (dedicated short-range communications), which facilitates both V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) communication.

Technology, predictably, has advanced significantly during the past three decades since DSRC was introduced, and now there are several available alternatives. The most noteworthy alternative is C-V2X (cellular vehicle-to-everything) technology, which supports continuous and instantaneous V2V, V2I, and V2P (vehicle-to-pedestrian) communications.

Unfortunately, C-V2X cannot be relied upon to support autonomous vehicles until 5G technologies enjoy widespread deployment, because the near 20-times faster speeds and low latency of 5G technologies is necessary to support the instantaneous processing of data that autonomous vehicles need to communicate with fellow road occupants in realtime. The pace of 5G deployment will largely depend on the willingness of federal, state, and local lawmakers to create regulatory frameworks that encourage investment and facilitate the installation of supporting infrastructure by the carriers and their vendors.

Unlocking the potential of autonomous transportation will require forward-looking decisions about how to encourage deployment of 5G and manage the spectrum on which driverless vehicles will rely. Regulators in the United States must design, implement, and continuously refine policies to allocate spectrum for new and advanced uses, while protecting autonomous vehicle spectrum from harmful interference.

Implicit in this objective should be smart technical rules to govern the allocation of spectrum for 5G and incentives for local governments to cut the red tape that keeps providers from entering public rights-of-way to install and upgrade their networks in a manner that is expedient and cost efficient.

The FCC is currently in the process of making available additional spectrum for advanced broadband applications and deployment of 5G. Unfortunately, the type of spectrum coming to market is not sufficient for widespread deployment; an effective strategy requires combining the use of low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum. Ongoing efforts to free up a larger proportion of spectrum is underway according to FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has taken a leading role in rulemakings that will dictate the future of 5G.

The lack of available sufficient spectrum is not the only obstacle to the deployment of 5G technologies. For example, access to real estate is needed to install and maintain the facilities and equipment that support 5G technologies.

According to the Wall Street Journal, about 95% of grounds and rooftops suitable for cellular towers are privately owned. What’s more, a relatively small number of cellular tower owners and operators themselves have a stranglehold on the United States market, which gives them the ability to extract unreasonable rents from carriers.

Compounding the problem is a lack of cooperation from some local governments and utilities where carriers need access to public rights-of-way to build their networks. Governments need to exercise leadership and vision to balance valid concerns with incentives for private companies and public utilities to cooperate with respect to the deployment of 5G technologies in light of its potential to significantly benefit public welfare.

In conclusion, barriers to the rapid deployment of 5G technologies remain, but not for a lack of effort. Leading the world in the deployment of 5G technologies is the stated goal of both the executive and legislative branches of the United States government. Notably, China also has its eyes on that crown, and is using its top-down regulatory structure to cut as much red tape as is necessary to speed ahead.

The result of the technological arms race may not only be leadership in telecommunications, but also in the future of autonomous transportation. If the United States hopes to win, let alone compete, our federal, state, and local leaders must lead through creativity and cooperation to create the conditions that will expedite the deployment of 5G technologies in a manner that maximizes the benefits to all.

Eric Tanenblatt, global chair of public policy and regulation, Dentons