Turf Wars and Taming the Wild West: Looking Ahead to WRC23

March 27, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

This November the ITU’s World Radio Conference (WRC) will take place, a once-every-four-year event which tends to be a setting for different organisations and interests to wrestle over the allocation and use of different spectrum bands. After this WRC there is only one other – in 2027 – before services beyond 6G are ready to come online. As a result, the discussions here will shape the coming decade’s services and the underlying shape of the industry by the time 6G arrives.  

The ITU’s preparatory body has been holding meetings to feed into this pivotal moment, including gathering intelligence and direction from six regional bodies covering the Americas, Africa, the Arab states, Europe, CIS and Asia Pacific. There are some striking areas of overlap, but also difference in emphasis. ‘ITU News’ dedicated a huge amount of space recently to these.

Prosaically, but importantly, increasing demand for 5G in mid-band frequencies is causing some focus on freeing up spectrum there. Indeed, Alexandre Kholod, Chairman of the European group CEPT, spelt out the desire to “specifically open more capacity for 5G — or IMT for 2020 and beyond — in urban areas.”

Strikingly, where once a band would be cleared for a single use, there appears to be more nuance now in the conversation over a desirable band. As Kholod noted, “The possibility of making this spectrum available for Wi-Fi use, together with protecting incumbent services in the same band… brings additional complexity to the discussions.”

Martin Fenton, in charge of the ITU-R’s Study Group 5 on mobile connectivity, underlined that “several bands are being considered between 3.3 GHz and 10.5 GHz.”

In lower bands, controversy may be brewing. Mobile frequencies are pushing into territory previously set aside for broadcast – not without pushback. AsYukihiro Nishida, Chair of ITU-R’s Study Group 6 on broadcast, commented, “Although no additional spectrum has been allocated to broadcasting for years, the demand for more and better services continues to grow.”

Nishida noted that stakeholders in mobile, public protection and others are all keen to gain spectrum below 700MHz, which would provide excellent wide-area coverage. However, “Co-channel sharing and compatibility studies have examined the impact of IMT base stations and user terminals on digital terrestrial television broadcasting reception. The results, however, vary widely.”

Kholod observed that “The highest-profile issue is probably the future of the ultra-high frequency (UHF) broadcasting band. There is a lot at stake here for European industries, including television broadcast, programme-making and special events (PMSE), public protection and disaster relief (PPDR), and mobile communications.”

In other words, there may be a very polite turf war breaking out over low-frequency spectrum.

ESIM, But Not As We Know It

Most attention seems to be reserved for non-terrestrial questions, however. Both satellite and HAPS (High Altitude Platform Stations) are on the tip of the tongue for many. Victor Strelets, Chair of the satellite-focussed Study Group 4, pointed out that this was very timely because of some fundamental problems to date.

“New engineering solutions and their associated services, especially in the field of satellite communications, continually outpace the enhancement of the international regulatory framework,” he observed.

“This gives rise to situations where spectrum use for new technologies happens in the absence of the relevant Radio Regulations provisions, creating obvious difficulties for administrations.”

If this sounds like a Wild West situation where doughty pioneers are boldly staking claims, that may be so. There are a huge number of innovations involved in above-the-ground affairs, and while different players have different priorities there was a joint sense of the importance of reducing that wildness.

  • The CIS’ working group Chair Albert Nalbandian noted that for them, “preparing the way for mega non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) satellite systems — totalling between 20,000 and 30,000 low-orbit satellites — in different frequency bands” is a priority. This would include LEOsat fleets such as those being deployed by Amazon, Starlink, OneWeb and others.
  • Meanwhile, Strelets emphasised “the possibility of allowing satellite to-satellite transmissions within the current fixed-satellite service allocation.” He seems cautiously optimistic about the possibility of using the same spectrum used for communicating with the ground for inter-satellite communications.
  • In Asia, APT chief Kyu-Jin Wee was keen to underline support for “new kinds of satellite services, such as earth stations in motion (ESIM), subject to protection of existing services.” These ESIMS have been described as essentially a satellite terminal that behaves like a mobile phone. It is striking to see the development of ESIMs while other satellite providers such as Lynk are creating satellite-to-mobile communications.
  • Tariq Al Awadhi, head of the Arab Spectrum Management Group, was keen to emphasise the development of narrowband mobile satellite services. “Given the current move towards smart cities and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, the availability of narrowband connectivity has become a major requirement — particularly in remote areas where terrestrial services are unavailable or out of reach.”

While these are all developments in space, there is also emphasis being given to drones and high-altitude platforms.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the role of Asian companies at the heart of the HAPS Alliance and other bodies, Wee commented that “a decision is needed at WRC-23 on the proper technical and regulatory conditions for HAPS roll out and expansion. This would include modifying the definition in the Radio Regulations of “HIBS” or “high-altitude platform stations as IMT Base Stations”.

Among other things, there are challenges for such high-altitude platforms operating at border areas because of the wide area they can cover. Fenton noted that “these airborne base stations can cause interference to systems in neighbouring countries. To address this risk, the conference will look at HIBS in bands below 2.7 GHz that are already identified for IMT.”

From attention pointing earthwards, there are also concerns over how to address the monitoring of space weather. While this may seem niche, it is a critical undertaking for the wellbeing of terrestrial and NTN communications. Space weather includes solar activity such as coronal mass ejections (CME), geomagnetic storms, solar radiation, and solar winds which can create potential Carrington events and other phenomena on Earth. Again, this could be a potential sticking-point.

John Zuzek, chair of the ITU-R Study Group 7, highlighted that space weather systems “are currently deployed in a few locations for global observation, with involvement by numerous countries and institutions, and operate relatively free of harmful interference. But changes in the Radio Regulations could change the future radio interference environment.”

Overall, the themes emerging from the WRC suggest that, unsurprisingly, competition for spectrum remains strong not only within the telecoms environment but beyond it. The emphasis on new use cases and regulations for non-terrestrial networks highlights the increasing diversity of roles that they are expected to play, and this is certainly something to watch given many demands for 6G to offer universal coverage.

However, it is also exciting to see increasing openness to the use of the same spectrum for diverse purposes or by different technologies. While this would need regulatory backing, arguably this might be the most exciting and impactful development in thinking for the longer term.

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