WRC’s Long-Term Impact – A View From Behind the Scenes

February 7, 2024

Written by Alex Lawrence

Last year’s World Radio Conference in Dubai was the subject of speculation and controversy (not least of the speculation in this 6GWorld webinar). As ever, wrangling over control of different parts of the radio spectrum was a cause of controversy. However, the month-long meeting ended with announcements from both the mobile and satellite communities that they were coming away with a win.

Given that spectrum is a finite resource the allocation is a zero-sum game. What’s the truth behind the optimistic announcements? 6GWorld spoke to Katherine Gizinski, CEO of River Advisers, to get her take on all things WRC-23. Gizinski runs an advisory firm that helps companies submit requests for satellite spectrum, so was there throughout.

“When you’re dealing with a finite resource and… you hear both sides come away with positive things to say, it does sort of make you wonder,” Gizinski conceded.

“But there are so many facets and complexities in any given issue taken up with WRC. I think it’s a fair conclusion, both satellites and IMT did achieve generally positive outcomes on both sides on various issues.”

While the satellite industry hailed new spectrum allocation to support “Earth Stations In Motion” such as ships, trains and elements that can be rapidly rolled out for disaster relief and to enable communications between LEO, GEO and MEO constellations, the mobile community cheered for allocations in the region of the 3 to 7 GHz range, including a globally harmonised 3.5GHz band for 5G services and a new 6GHz band which has been the focus for 5G-Advanced.

There were several important issues which have been slated for WRC-27, many of them satellite-related. One of the more striking concerns spectrum for LEO satellites providing direct-to-device communications. If that seems like a risk of competing interests between mobile and satellite, you would be right; but even within an industry there were, and are, some major battles being fought.

Diversity of Viewpoints

“An easy one to point to is geostationary versus non-geostationary interests,” Gizinski commented.

“There was a particular thorny issue at the WRC-23 around EPFD [Equivalent power-Flux Density] limits. Boiling it down to a very simple characterization, there’s a set of standards for how you measure interference which can versus can’t be tolerated.”

While this may seem like a fairly arcane but straightforward principle, Gizinski went on to explain that some of the non-geostationary operators are challenging the threshold for interference tolerance – in short, to enable the new entrants more leeway. Unsurprisingly, this technical element led to commercial friction between the geostationary and on-geostationary player; that was not the end of it, though.

“Taking it a step further, we saw at WRC 23… a potential that wasn’t at the forefront of either of those arguments, which was that if we change some of these rules, it is in practice going to allow for more rapid deployment of specific constellations, very large mega-constellations from Western nations. So other nations said “Well, we have future space aspirations and we have some concerns about our ability to access this shared resource of physical space in the future.”

This demonstrates quite how a fairly obscure technicality can have quite far-reaching implications on national and geopolitical levels. Not surprisingly, perhaps, EPFD limits are not going to be touched for now.

Said Gizinski, “That’s just taking one very small, very technical component of a tremendous amount of regulation. You can see once you start to unpack it, it’s so much bigger than “how do we measure interference?” It could be the inflection point that we look back on as an industry that massively changes the landscape for equity and access to space for the entire world.”

“That’s why it takes the full four-year cycle. They’ve tried three years and it’s just not enough time to really work through all of the considerations for each of these topics.”

Decentralisation?

While, as we can see, WRC is a forum for some essential discussions about global alignment on spectrum allocations, there are some significant national elements which didn’t get discussed which might play an even more significant part in using the available spectrum resources. These include questions of licensing; auction processes and pricing; sharing or sub-licensing spectrum; spectrum trading and more.

If we are thinking about how to optimise the use of available spectrum, then there may be better models than national-scale licenses which belong to a company regardless of whether they can or will use it in a given geography. However, these regulations and approaches will be determined at a national level rather than globally.

Does that reduce the significance of WRC as a convening body? Gizinski is doubtful.

“Global standards give clarity when it comes to investment and go-to-market strategy; then within each country, each nation state has the option and the opportunity to overlay its own national regulation on top of those global standards based on its policy priorities.

“Another component to that is space operation, satellite operation. It transcends borders by nature, so we do need those those global standards to keep order to an inherently shared physical space resource, as well as a spectrum resource.”

Gizinski argues that the balance of national, scientific and commercial interests brought to bear at WRC makes it a unique forum for evolving the telecoms environment.

“I think in fact it’s becoming a greater focus with more prominence, particularly as the number of commercial players in satellite and space grows,” she observed.

“I think it will become more central to the business cases, investment due diligence and other considerations rather than just a focus area for folks with specific regulatory expertise.”

6G Tendencies and Networks of Networks

With that in mind, what should we take away from this as regards the evolution from 5G to 6G? Yes, there has been a useful spectrum allocation, but – depending on who you talk to – 6G concepts are a good deal more enthusiastic than that. They look at a technical overlap between terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks. This may well translate into commercial overlaps as well, as exemplified by DISH’s purchase of Echostar.

Is that likely to make a difference to the nature of the conversations at WRC… or has it already?

“I do think that the opportunities for partnership have positively and productively impacted broader discussions around spectrum use and how we address that,” Gizinski commented.

“But certainly there are many opportunities for satellite and IMT to further partner.”

While some of the current models include using satellite to in-fill terrestrial coverage gaps, the direct-to-device model which players such as T-Mobile and Starlink have started to experiment with is fascinating. These may point the way to a more flexible way for networks to collaborate and make use of available spectrum, regardless of whether that’s designated for mobile or satellite.

What about HAPS, though? In conversations up to this point it hasn’t felt very clear to what extent they form part of the terrestrial or non-terrestrial ecosystem, though they could be very significant for both in the longer term. Gizinski nodded.

“I think part of the reason that the impression is squishy is because that role is evolving; and that that’s largely an economic discussion rather than a purely regulatory discussion.”

The work around HAPS is, however, stimulating some of the technologies which might become foundational to 6G networks-of-networks, she noted.

“There are some really exciting and interesting technologies out there that are specifically aimed at solving the orchestration problem. You have an intelligent decision engine and, rather than one technology or one system, instead it’s looking at a multifaceted, multi-orbit, multi-mode network and based on what any given node in that network has in terms of need, choosing the optimal path and approach to addressing those requirements,” she said.

“The goal is a resilient and efficient, cost-effective architecture that leverages a whole range of technologies and capabilities, ultimately aimed at serving that end user at a price point that suits them – which can vary wildly depending on which market you’re looking at.”

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