WRC-23 Will Shape the Future of a Key Spectrum Band

Herman Schepers

Founder and Managing Partner

Policy Impact Partners

Of the many items on the agenda of the World Radiocommunications Conference 2023 (WRC-23), one stands out as being very important to the future of connectivity. That’s because it concerns 700 MHz of prime mid-band spectrum – the 6425–7125 MHz band.

Agenda Item 1.2 considers whether this spectrum, which is widely used for satellite services and fixed wireless links, should be identified for international mobile telecommunications (IMT) in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), which is ITU Region 1.  That’s controversial for two key reasons. Firstly, commercial 5G and 4G (IMT) services operate at power levels, which means they could interfere with important incumbent satellite and fixed link services. Secondly, in Brazil, Canada, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the US and other countries, the 6425–7125 MHz band has been made licence-exempt, meaning Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other low-power technologies can harness it. 

The point of an IMT identification is to facilitate international harmonisation. But as the countries that have made this spectrum licence-exempt generate about one-third of global GDP, there is no prospect of the 6 GHz band being globally harmonized for licensed IMT. 

Although they are leading adopters of 5G, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the US have decided to prioritise Wi-Fi because it is currently far more spectrum-constrained than IMT. That reflects the fact that the vast majority of Internet usage and demand takes place indoors, where people prefer to use Wi-Fi because of its lower costs and ability to support higher speeds. While IMT technologies are designed to provide connectivity to people on the move, Wi-Fi is optimized to support connectivity in a specific location.

Most new use cases envisioned by wireless user equipment manufacturers, such as virtual reality and mixed reality, will require Wi-Fi to deliver even more traffic indoors. These use cases won’t rely on cellular networks.  Studies in Europe[1] have shown that using mobile data indoors consumes far more energy than using a fixed connection with Wi-Fi, as outdoor mobile base stations need to consume high levels of power for their signals to penetrate inside buildings. 

Reducing congestion, boosting performance

Over the past two decades, Wi-Fi has become the de facto way that most people and things around the world access online services. By the end of 2023, there will be 19.5 billion Wi-Fi devices in use globally, according to research firm IDC[2].  That figure will continue to grow through this decade. Therefore, to reduce congestion and meet demand in densely populated areas, Wi-Fi needs access to the entire 6 GHz band.

Furthermore, the latest version of Wi-Fi – Wi-Fi 6E – can take advantage of the wide channels available in the 6 GHz band to support the high throughput rates and low latency required to support demanding consumer and enterprise services, such as high-resolution video and immersive mixed reality applications.  A highly capable technology, Wi-Fi 6E needs access to the entire 6 GHz band to fully leverage the performance of gigabit fixed-line networks, in particular fibre-to-the-building connections.  

There are now more than 1,200 Wi-Fi 6E devices and routers commercially available, according to estimates by Intel[3]. IDC anticipates that 473 million Wi-Fi 6E devices will ship in 2023, underlining the growing demand to harness the 6 GHz spectrum band to further boost performance and reduce congestion.  The forthcoming Wi-Fi 7 standard, which includes further performance and efficiency enhancements, will also need access to the 6 GHz spectrum being considered by Agenda Item 1.2. 

IMT isn’t short of capacity

Conversely, cellular networks already have access to more than enough mid and low-band spectrum to connect people on the move. Data from Europe[4] suggests the 3.6 GHz band, which has been allocated for 5G services by many administrations across the world, isn’t being heavily used. Even when the utilisation of 3.6 GHz increases, adjacent mid bands could provide ample additional capacity for 5G to cover the use cases that need a licensed technology.

Although 5G will provide substantial societal benefits, most mobile applications need reliable coverage, rather than more capacity. The 6 GHz band, in which radio signals don’t travel long distances, isn’t the answer to that challenge. 

In the US, it is evident that the mobile network operators have more than enough capacity in the C-band (in the 3 GHz range) to meet the demand for 5G, even from customers using the technology as their primary broadband link.  Verizon, for example, now has almost two million fixed wireless access connections, which it is serving with 5G in the 3 GHz band. On a recent earnings call[5] with analysts, Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon Communications, said: “I feel really confident that we will manage this capacity without any problems to the levels we have talked about and way beyond that.”

Across the Americas, there is a clear consensus that the full 6 GHz band should be licence exempt. If WRC-23 were to identify the upper 6 GHz band for IMT in EMEA, the spectrum would be fragmented globally, reducing economies of scale and increasing costs for citizens and businesses across the world.

‘No change’ gives governments the flexibility they need

Across EMEA, administrations are concerned about what an IMT identification would mean for incumbent satellite and fixed wireless services. As a high-power technology, IMT can’t realistically share the 6 GHz band with these incumbents, whereas low-power Wi-Fi can.

Given the current mobile allocation already in force, governments and regulators can freely decide on the most efficient use of the upper 6 GHz band. An IMT identification is not mandatory to operate IMT; there are examples of IMT being deployed on a national or regional basis, even in the absence of an IMT identification in the ITU’s Radio Regulations.

Therefore, WRC-23 should adopt a No Change position on the upper 6 GHz band, as that would give each country the flexibility to choose the future use of the band based on its needs while giving the tech industry the certainty and clarity it needs to produce a wide range of cost-effective Wi-Fi 6E equipment for the global market. 

Herman Schepers

Founder and Managing Partner

Policy Impact Partners

Herman is a global public policy and government affairs leader who has been at the forefront of technology policy and advocacy work with innovators, governments and regulators for over twenty years. During this period, he has built highly effective public affairs teams, managed relations with ministries and regulators across EMEA and APAC, and directed government affairs for some of the biggest names in corporate tech.

Before founding Policy Impact Partners, Herman was responsible for spectrum and broadband advocacy at mobile industry association, the GSMA, where he led the global campaign to secure more spectrum for broadband services at the 2015 UN World Radiocommunication Conference. He also designed and coordinated multiple advocacy programmes across key markets in the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific to advance the release and licensing of the ‘digital dividend’ spectrum for mobile.

Herman has built a strong global network of senior level contacts both in government and across industry, and has a trusted reputation for effectively advocating policies that align business and societal goals. He is an accomplished speaker and moderator, and a regular contributor to capacity-building programmes for regulators and government representatives across the world.

Earlier in his career, Herman established and led the EU public affairs technology practice of the global communications consultancy in Brussels, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, directing accounts with Amazon, Adobe, Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance. He also held operations, strategy and policy positions at British Telecom, and worked for the Dutch Industry Federation.

Herman has an MSc in political science and international economics and an MBA.

[1] https://en.arcep.fr/fileadmin/user_upload/04-22-english-version.pdf

[2] https://www.wi-fi.org/beacon/the-beacon/wi-fi-by-the-numbers-technology-momentum-in-2023

[3] https://wifinowglobal.com/news-and-blog/intel-says-wi-fi-6e-device-count-passes-1200-more-apple-iphone-15-wi-fi-6e-rumours/

[4] Analysis based on the 82 5G networks considered in EU27 by Rewheel research’s study “Mobile data usage in 2021 and 4G & 5G operator capacity potential”, published in March 2022. https://research.rewheel.fi/downloads/Mobile_data_usage_2021_capacity_potential_170_operators_50_countries_PUBLIC_VERSION.pdf  

[5] https://www.verizon.com/about/investors/quarterly-reports/1q-2023-earnings-conference-call-webcast

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