WRC-23 Outcomes… Nobody Left Behind?

December 20, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

With WRC-23 ending last week, the GSMA was quick to deliver positive comments on the impact of decisions made there.

“The GSMA believes that no-one should be left behind in the digital age,” John Giusti, their Chief Regulatory Officer, commented.

“Implementation of the WRC-23 decisions will support global digital ambitions, deliver greater digital equality and unlock the full power of connectivity.”

While it may be true that the decisions represent a good step forward for the mobile industry in terms of aligning global spectrum allocations, can we be confident that this will lead to beneficial results overcoming digital divides? Is the industry set up in an appropriate way to make that actually the outcome, rather than a notional possibility?

Monisha Ghosh, formerly CTO for the FCC and now a professor at Notre Dame University, is doubtful that this, in itself, can provide a solution in time for 6G.

The Spectrum Coverage Problem

“My opinion is that the real hurdle is the lack of affordable backhaul,” she commented during a conversation in October.

“If good backhaul is available, carrier aggregation over 4G can deliver 100 – 200 Mbps very cost effectively, using unlicensed and shared bands like CBRS. This is something we reported almost 2 years back.”

Indeed, if coverage was the only concern then digital divides would be a good deal smaller than they are, both within countries and between them. The GSMA’s own data suggests that only 5% of the global population are outside coverage, but 43% of the world population doesn’t use mobile broadband.

While Ghosh has been mainly focussed on the USA in her work, this has also been her experience depending on where you are in the country.

“In March, I was in Zion Canyon for a few days. Not only was there almost no cellular service at the main lodge and trails, but the Wi-Fi was also really poor at the lodge. Now, this is not a digital divide issue per se, but the place was packed and in the event of an emergency the lack of connectivity could become a serious problem. This problem can mostly be addressed by having better backhaul,” she observed.

Using an app developed by one of Ghosh’s students, they captured signal strength data from around the country.

“We see that in more remote or rural areas there is perhaps only one 4G channel available, usually a low band one, whereas in urban areas there are many more being used and many more base stations.”

In other words, coverage of what is nominally mobile broadband can still underperform considerably. This is perhaps unsurprising, as there are few commercial reasons to deploy densely in rural areas as things stand. However, this does create a vicious cycle, wherein a lack of good data coverage either dissuades people from living in rural areas or penalises them for doing so; in turn, this creates lower population densities and reduces commercial paybacks for deploying infrastructure.

There is an argument that the process could be reversed; that by enabling good broadband coverage in rural and remote areas it would enable people to work remotely, boosting rural economies with their incomes and creating more incentives and demand for connectivity.

However, Ghosh pointed out a second concern.

“While spectrum auctions raise large amounts of money for the nation, it also burdens the winners since they have to recoup the money spent to acquire spectrum, and hence will focus on areas where there are more paying customers.”

The devil here is really in the detail. “The build-out requirements, if there are any, are pegged to census blocks and covering a small section allows one to claim the full block.”

In other words, covering a village in a large area may suffice to meet an operator’s coverage obligations, and if so, why spend more on a loss-leading obligation?

The Structural Problem

The challenge for Ghosh is that fundamentally the spectrum system as we know it is not well-suited to meet the objectives of overcoming digital divides.

“I feel that spectrum auctions need to come with more stringent build-out requirements, she suggested.

“If less money is raised in the process so be it. Raising large sums of money through auction and then creating programs like the Affordable Connectivity act which subsidises connectivity seems to be the wrong way to approach this problem.”

While some industry veterans might view this as charmingly naïve, on the basis that governments want not just to shear the telecoms sheep but to skin it, there are real-life examples that Ghosh could draw upon.

“I thought it was really interesting that New Zealand gave the three major operators 80 MHz of spectrum for $24M each to build out 5G,” she said.

“Contrast that with $80 billion spent on 280 MHz of C-band spectrum [in the USA]. In retrospect, the T-Mobile acquisition of Sprint for $26B was a bargain since they got about 200 MHz at 2.5 GHz where they are rolling out 5G quite rapidly.”

What is more, rural telecoms suffers not only from the lack of physical infrastructure but inflexibility in how spectrum is managed, sublicensed or traded.

“In a talk I’d once heard, a rural community wished to lease spectrum that was owned by a carrier who hadn’t deployed in the area. It couldn’t do so. Allowing secondary leasing on reasonable terms can also help solve this problem.”

Indeed, the idea of allowing local spectrum sublicensing or sharing in more flexible manners was one of the headlines of a submission Ghosh made to the NTIA earlier this year as part of its National Spectrum Strategy work.

“Ofcom has a better approach to this than the US,” she said, “with 400 MHz of spectrum in the prime 3.8-4.2 GHz band set aside for local licensing.”

Can WRC-23 help to solve the digital divides then?

“I am in the minority here, but I don’t think this is a problem of technology or lack of spectrum,” Ghosh observed. Indeed, if it had been administered correctly,

“4G could have solved the digital divide.”

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