At the recent Intelligent Transportation Society of America meeting, I had the chance to sit down with Scott Belcher, president and chief executive officer of ITS America since 2007. Prior to joining ITS America, Belcher served as executive vice president and general counsel at the National Academy of Public Administration. Prior to that, he held senior management positions at a number of other trade associations and practiced law at the firm of Beveridge & Diamond and at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Belcher holds a juris doctor degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University.
One of the big issues in ITS right now is whether the Federal Communications Commission will open the 5.9 GHz radio frequency band—once reserved for public safety applications—to unlicensed devices. I asked Belcher what he would do to prevent interference from unlicensed devices with safety applications.
“It’s a really good question, and one that ITS America has kind of taken the lead on. I think the answer is we don’t know. And that’s the whole point. There are technologists that will tell you that there are sharing solutions, and then there are technologists that will tell you there aren’t sharing solutions in this band, because of the need for latency.
“The other part of it is we haven’t done the research to know whether, even if you have a sharing solution, you can share in the worst-case scenario. You might be able to do a bench test and show that you can share if you’re doing a couple of signals. What happens if you’ve got 10,000 cars in a quarter-mile area all going at 10 signals a second and you’re maxing the system? Do you still have that same level of reliability? That’s the key.
“We’re not opposed to sharing. We all need sharing, because the spectrum is going to max out pretty quickly. What we’re telling the FCC and the NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] is to make sure they’ve got the answer to the question before they make the decision. Once you open it up to sharing, if you were to find out later that you’ve got a problem, it’s too late to fix.
“The first phase was when NTIA released their report, and we were pretty active in making sure that they realized that there was a very strong constituency out there, and that we were watching and paying attention.
“The FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking two weeks ago. Comments are due on May 28. And then there’s a 30-day response period. They’ve said that it’s incumbent upon those who want shared uses to demonstrate that they can share without interference. What’s probably going to happen after that is there’s going to be testing to test those proposals. That testing will be done by U.S. DOT, by NTIA and by the stakeholder community in various formations.
“We’ve got a three-pronged approach to this. We’ve got a legal approach, where we’re filing legal comments and making sure the FCC knows we’re there, that we’re paying attention. We’ve got a technical approach, where we’re working with the NTIA and the DOT. We’re also working with the IT community to see if we can do the technical work that’s necessary to be able to make a sound determination. And then we’ve got a political approach, where we’re making sure that the appropriate members of Congress and the appropriate committees know what’s going on, so that if they need to intervene to prevent a political decision not based on sound science, that they’ll intervene. It’s not that we don’t think the FCC is going to do their job; it’s just that we need to protect the interests of the industry.”
I asked how this year’s meeting compared with past meetings:
“It rocked. The feedback that we’ve gotten is that it’s the best conference people have been to in a number of years. I’ve gotten the feedback that it’s not only the best ITS America conference but the best transportation conference they’ve gone to.
“Like every transportation conference, we’ve really been hit hard by the budget cuts and the state inability to travel. That’s affected our meetings, and it’s affected our exhibitors. So we pulled out all the stops this year. We slashed public-sector prices by as much as 60%. We set up the state DOT CEO roundtable, where we had 23 states. We ran VIP tours through the exhibit hall—more than 10 of them. We had public-sector buyers at our booth doing meet-and-greets every hour. We increased the public-sector attendance at this meeting by over 75%. Almost half of the attendees here are public-sector attendees. We had more than 30 states represented, more than 50 cities represented, more than 30 transit districts represented. At our next meeting, the  World Congress in Detroit, I think we’re really going to be able to leverage the success that we’ve had.” This year’s conference had almost 2,000 registrants.
Belcher thought the nature of the vendors in the ITS industry was shifting toward larger companies that were already established in related technology markets.
“My membership’s changing incredibly, and it’s the IT companies, it’s the telecom companies, it’s the investment companies that are coming and that are starting to change the industry. Those are not companies that are used to eight- or nine-year product cycles. Those are companies that are used to eight- or nine-week product cycles. Investment companies are used to investing in eight companies, hoping that one succeeds. It’s a completely different mentality.”
In response, ITS America is evolving too.
“We launched a leadership circle this year with 30 organizations that really wanted to be part of thought leadership. We had our first thought leadership meeting this weekend before the meeting. It was great. We brought in some folks from Silicon Valley, some folks that are interested in our space but don’t know how to make it work.”
Some of the new people entering the ITS market are more willing to take risks than the public-agency officials who have been working on ITS solutions to transportation problems for years.
“As a result of [the thought-leadership meeting], we’re going to continue to work on incubating change in an industry that is slow to change. How do we incubate change in a way that allows public agencies to take risks and to fail but not to fail massively and to keep their jobs? And how do we do it in an environment where there isn’t any money? How do we monetize it in a way that the private companies feel comfortable that they’re getting a good return on their investment but that the public agencies also get a return.
“That’s the great thing about ITS America. We’ve got those guys who want to take those risks. It’s harder for them to take risks, but they’re willing to take risks as long as they’re managed, constrained risks and they have the ability to communicate about them properly. They’re excited about the opportunity to try it.”
Finally, I asked Belcher what he thought was the most exciting topic in ITS right now:
“Smart parking is the coolest thing out there right now. We did an event in Berkeley [Calif.] on smart parking. Massively successful. It’s a way for cities and states to manage parking, generate revenue, partner with the private sector. [ITS America created a Storify about it (http://storify.com/ITSAmerica/smart-parking-symposium), incorporating video, still photos, text and tweets.] It tells the story about this whole new smart parking industry, and we’re really kind of at the forefront of that.
“That industry is the tail of the elephant, because it’s using big data, it’s using data analytics, it’s using public-private partnerships in a way that cities can manage and grapple with and get their heads around, but it’s just the beginning of what’s coming. It’s an exciting area, because I believe it’s the beginning of bringing data analytics to transportation in a way that we currently can’t do or haven’t figured out how to do. It’s a way of bringing innovation to transportation, the kind of Silicon Valley innovation that transportation operators and providers aren’t used to. It’s really disruptive.”