The key engineering, legal and policy issues
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 last one, WRC-19, took place at Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh beach resort, in October and November 2019. The next one’s location has been not decided, but it will take over four weeks in 2023.
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. Agenda item 10 is often one of the most contentious discussions.
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-19 agreed that WRC-23 will study potential IMT identifications (meaning mobile broadband) across several bands between 3.3 GHz and 10.5 GHz. In November 2019, CPM23-1 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, and including input from study groups for different industries. For the IMT agenda item, (AI 1.2), technical and operational characteristics needed for sharing and compatibility studies must be available by June 2021.
All of these Methods are collected in a CPM Report, which will be put together at a second Conference Preparatory Meeting held several months before WRC-23 itself.
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.
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.
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-23 is no exception to this trend. It will consider:
- IMT identification in 3300—3400 MHz, amending footnotes for Regions 1 and 2;
- IMT identification in 3600—3800 MHz in Region 2;
- Primary mobile allocation for 3600—3800 MHz in Region 1.
- IMT identification for 6425 – 7025 MHz in Region 1;
- Global IMT identification in 7025 – 7125 MHz;
- IMT identification in 10 – 10.5 GHz in Region 2.
Region 1 refers to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Region 2 to the Americas, and Region 3 to the Asia-Pacific area.
Despite the high profile C-band and 6 GHz, PolicyTracker understands that the most controversial IMT-related item—and perhaps one of the most difficult at the future conference—will be the study of fixed service bands for IMT fixed wireless access (FWA).
It is understood that studies over the next four years will focus on what IMT in the fixed service actually means, with concrete proposals coming forward in the 2023-27 period.
An agenda item on the future of the 470 – 960 MHz band in Region 1 is also likely to generate a lot of interest.
WRC-23 also contains several agenda items related to satellite services, including new allocations of the Mobile Satellite Service for future IoT applications.
There will also be discussions on drones and high altitude platforms as base stations, among other topics.
Information about the results of WRC-19 are available here, while a summary of WRC-23 agenda items is here.
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