5G Global Spectrum Planning: Significant Progress at WRC-19

5G Global Spectrum Planning: Significant Progress at WRC-19

Rob Frieden

Pioneers Chair and Professor of Telecommunications and Law

Penn State University

[email protected], web site: http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/r/m/rmf5/

         For nearly a month in late 2019, the world’s nations sent delegates to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt with an important and exhaustive spectrum planning agenda.  Every four years, the International Telecommunication Union (“ITU”) hosts a forum with a mission to reach global consensus on spectrum allocations.  Achieving this goal will enable stakeholders of all kinds to benefit from technology optimization and uniformity in the frequencies and technical standards used for such emerging services as the fifth generation of wireless services (“5G”).

         The ITU serves as the world’s oldest, continually operating inter-governmental organization, now affiliated with the United Nations.  National governments willingly give up the sovereign right of self-determination for a greater good accruing when, for example, wireless carriers can agree to use the same frequencies so that subscribers can capture efficiency gains in having access to handsets useable throughout the world. 

         However, reliance on the ITU comes as a cost that some stakeholders increasingly do not want to incur.  The ITU emphasizes consensus building and inter-governmental coordination at the expense of speedy resolution of conflicts.  ITU procedures require extensive study, deliberation and coordination that can span several World Radio Conferences (“WRC-19”), like the Sharm el-Sheikh event.  Insatiable demand for 5G services, including video and the Internet of Things, has motivated some nations to act unilaterally, well before the ITU can complete its work.

         WRCs have achieved measurable and positive progress, albeit on an incremental basis. ITU Deputy Director Mario Maniewicz reported an increase in the spectrum allocated for mobile telecommunications services from 230 megahertz (“MHz”) in 1992-97 to 1886 MHz after conclusion of WRC-15, with WRC-19 nearly doubling that amount of bandwidth:  1535 MHz which translates into 15.35 Gigahertz (“GHz”).  

Over the length of its tenure as the oldest, inter-governmental organization, the ITU has persisted, despite challenges to its legitimacy, and criticisms about its effectiveness, ability to respond to changed circumstances and flexibility in meeting new requirements presented by Member nationsNotwithstanding these complaints, the completed work at WRC-19 included several forward-looking items well before entrepreneurial ventures expect to migrate from test and demonstration projects to offering commercial service.  The conference identified additional radio-frequency bands for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) systems that will provide signal relays, located in the stratosphere around 20 kilometers above earth, for broadband access by users in a large geographical area, including remote locales with small populations.  The conference also addressed technical coordination issues for mobile satellite broadband transceivers. Additionally, WRC-19 provided timely guidance on how nations can coordinate the launch and operation of small satellite constellations numbering in the hundreds and operating in low earth orbits.

The ITU faces growing challenges to its legitimacy as some nations grow increasingly impatient with its governance structure and ability to reach closure on spectrum allocations for next generation technology such as 5G. Nevertheless, WRC-19 evidences the reliability and resiliency of global inter-government coordination and consensus building. 

         Rob Frieden holds the Pioneers Chair and serves as Professor of Telecommunications and Law at Penn State University where he teaches courses in technology management, regulation, business, policy and law. Professor Frieden has published 4 books, written over 100 articles in law and telecommunications policy journals and provides biannual updates for All About Cable and Broadband (Law Journal Press).  He frequently provides insights on current topics in telecommunications law and policy for media, conference attendees and consultancy clients throughout the world.  

         Professor Frieden holds a B.A., with distinction, from the University of Pennsylvania (1977) and a J.D. from the University of Virginia (1980).

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