The ITU-R holds a World Radiocommunication Conference, known as a WRC, every three or four years. Over three thousand of the world's most preeminent spectrum policy experts are expected to attend WRC-19 at an Egyptian beach resort this October. This note explains what a WRC is, and what will be at stake at Sharm El-Sheikh.
Jun 13, 2019 by Toby Youell Research Analyst
WRC-19: preparation for a previous conference

Thousands of delegates attend WRCs (ITU)

Although countries administer their own spectrum policies, it is considered helpful for these to be internationally aligned to some extent. This is for two main reasons:

  • Prevention of interference between countries, known in the ITU context as Administrations. One country’s radio transmissions (such as from a high-power service like terrestrial broadcasting) could cross borders and interfere with a neighbour’s receivers (such as for a low power service like satellite downlinks).
  • Harmonisation. If industry is sure that all or most Administrations will use a given band for a given service, then they can mass produce equipment. This can drive costs down, as well as allow for global interoperability and roaming.

UN Member States try to achieve this by agreeing on a set of Radio Regulations.

The Regulations define primary and secondary services for cross-border interference. If a service is primary then an Administration can use the spectrum, if it follows the technical rules incorporated into the Regulations by reference, without worrying about receiving interference from or causing interference to any other country.

the ITU-R does not police the Radio Regulations; they are obeyed because every Administration has agreed to them

The Regulations also govern orbital locations for satellites and the use of spectrum in space, an area where individual states are not sovereign.

World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRCs) are the only instruments that can amend the Radio Regulations. These are convened by the radio division of the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the UN known as the ITU-R, every three or four years. WRCs are often held at the ITU-R’s headquarters in Geneva but the next one, WRC-19, will take place at Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh beach resort, from October 28 to November 22.

Voting is theoretically possible at WRCs, but in practice all decisions are made by consensus. This is because the ITU-R does not police the Radio Regulations; they are only obeyed because every Administration has agreed to them.

The WRC cycle

The need for consensus drives a four-year preparatory process that gives Administrations ample time to understand the issues, develop views, build coalitions, and ultimately prepare for compromises.

Each WRC contains an agenda item 10, which calls for the drafting of future agenda items. WRC-19, for example, contains over 30 agenda items and issues, some of which were the result of hard-fought negotiations that took its predecessor, WRC-15, right up to the brink of running out of time.

A first Conference Preparatory Meeting (CPM) is held the week after WRC. This divides the agenda items among the ITU-R’s specialized Study Groups, which regularly gather experts sent by Administrations to understand issues gathered under groups of services.

Although Administrations may make proposals to a WRC on their own, it is considered more effective if they contribute to Multi Country Proposals

For example, WRC-15 agreed to continue its previous work on allowing Radio Local Area Networks to use more of the 5150 – 5925 MHz band. In December 2015, CPM-1 delegated the issue to a sub-group of Study Group 5, which deals with terrestrial services.

The Study Groups develop possible Methods, taking into account contribution from any interested party, that might resolve the agenda item. For 5 GHz RLANs, a Working Party of SG 5 studied its spectrum requirements, their potential impact on currently allocated services in a series of particular frequency bands, and finally identified some Methods to resolve the item. These Methods span from No Change, to changing some of the technical rules associated with particular sub-bands.

All of these Methods are collected in a CPM Report, which was put together at a second Conference Preparatory Meeting held in February this year.

In parallel to the CPM process, individual Administrations will look at the issues and develop their own views. Although Administrations may make proposals to a WRC on their own, it is considered more effective if they contribute to Multi Country Proposals. There are six regional organisations that help coordinate these MCPs, each with its own set of working practices. They often send representatives to each other’s meetings to better understand their positions.

For 5 GHz RLANs, it became clear during the WRC-19 cycle that there was no political support for any change in the 5250 – 5725 MHz and 5850 – 5925 MHz ranges, so the CPM Report only contains potential methods for relaxations of the rules at 5150 – 5250 MHz and 5725 – 5850 MHz. Administrations and regional groups are now working to build support for their favoured methods.

What’s at stake

Administrations that ignore Regulations do not suffer harsh consequences, especially with respect to terrestrial services. Arguably the most important output of the WRC is its long iterative process of technical and political consensus-building that incorporates views industry and governments across the world.

But many countries, especially in the developing world, closely adhere to the Regulations, so the WRC process gives participants the opportunity to export its vision of the optimal use of spectrum across the world.

Item 10, the agenda for future WRCs, often provokes fraught discussions

The mobile industry has often sought to take advantage of this by changing the Regulations’ footnotes so as to “identify” a band for IMT, which is ITU-jargon for mobile broadband. WRC-19 promises to be no exception to this trend. The most popular band in the relevant agenda item (1.13) is the 24.25 – 27.5 GHz range, which plays a crucial role in most counties’ 5G strategies. Administrations agree on the need to identify IMT in the band, but there have been vigorous discussions on the best way to prevent interference to the adjacent weather radars at 23.6 – 24 GHz. Satellite users and Wi-Gig proponents are also nervously watching discussions at 37 – 43.5 GHz and 66 – 71 GHz respectively.

The mobile industry is also on the defensive at WRC-19 with respect to the 28 GHz band. Satellite operators want to allow Earth Stations in Motion to transmit at 27.5 – 29.5 GHz as part of agenda item 1.5. But mobile operators are advocating strict limits on this to avoid interference to backhaul links, which operate under the already-existing fixed allocation.

It is likely that the most contentious items will be those that delegates least expect.

Agenda Item 10, the agenda for future WRCs, often provokes fraught discussions. The USA’s failure to secure an agenda item on IMT at 27.5 – 28.35 GHz for WRC-19, for example, led to some politicians to advocate the US withdrawing funding for the ITU. Although at an early stage in development, the potential prospect of studying identifying different frequencies from 3.6 to 24 GHz for IMT at WRC-23 is already causing consternation among the bands’ current users. Satellite users in particular are worried about repeating previous battles over potential IMT identifications at 3.6 – 4.2 GHz.

Some agenda items appear esoteric but have the potential to introduce difficult political issues. This includes agenda items 1.11, 7-A, 9.1-7, and 9.1, concerning spectrum for trains, reserving spectrum for non-geostationary mega-constellations, satellite terminals, and IMT at 4.9 GHz respectively.

It is likely that the most contentious items will be those that delegates least expect. WRC-15 saw surprisingly easy agreement on spectrum for Global Flight Tracking, but long disagreements on apparently uncontentious future agenda items.

More articles from the PolicyTracker Spectrum 101

Why is spectrum management important?

What are the key events which have shaped the evolution of spectrum policy?

The evolution of spectrum auctions 

5G spectrum

5G verticals

A guide to WRC-19