Q: Who won at the WRC-19 spectrum slugfest? A: Everyone!

WRC 19 spectrum
Image credit: ITU/ D. Woldu

ITEM: The ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19) is done and dusted, and for once, just about everyone is happy with the results.

WRC-19 kicked off at the end of last month to sort out a variety of spectrum-related issues. The big items on the docket included 5G, non-geostationary satellite systems, high-altitude platform systems (HAPS), among other things, which ostensibly meant another face-off between the mobile industry and just about everybody else over whatever new spectrum gets earmarked for usage.

While negotiations were frequently described as “difficult”, in the end everyone essentially got what they wanted.

Here’s a brief summary of the highlights:

1. We have more 5G spectrum now

Perhaps the most contentious item on the agenda was identifying additional spectrum bands for harmonized 5G usage. The GSMA was lobbying for spectrum in the 26, 40 and 66 GHz mmWave bands. It got that and more – the ITU allocated the 24.25-27.5 / 37-43.5 / 45.5-47 / 47.2-48.2 and 66-71 GHz bands for 5G.

Both the GSMA and its vendor-driven counterpart GSA issued ebullient statements about how 5G can now deliver the global utopia the industry has been promising for years – at least until they use up their new spectrum and need even more. Which, they assure us, they will. (See below.)

2. Non-GEO satellites are go – with conditions

With SoftBank’s OneWeb, Amazon’s Kuiper System and SpaceX’s Starlink (to name but a few) planning to blanket the skies with tens of thousands of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites providing broadband internet connectivity (Starlink alone wants to launch 42,000 LEOsats, and no I’m not kidding), the ITU desperately needed a regulatory framework to handle the spectrum requirements for such systems.

The ITU has opted for a milestone-driven regulatory framework, under which LEO systems must deploy 10% of their constellation within two years after the end of the current regulatory period, 50% within five years and 100% within seven years.

According to an ITU press release, this approach will help “ensure that the Master International Frequency Register reasonably reflects the actual deployment of such NGSO satellite systems in specific radio-frequency bands and services.” It will also make coordination easier and discourage spectrum warehousing, the ITU says.

3. Drones and balloons now have their own spectrum

The idea of HAPS projects like weather balloons and UAVs to provide floating wireless broadband platforms 20-50km above the earth has been around a long time, but the notion has become feasible enough that WRC-19 was tasked with identifying spectrum bands such systems could use if they’re ever going to move out of the trial stage.

Now, HAPS projects can use the 31-31.3/ 38-39.5 / 47.2-47.5 and 47.9-48.2 GHz bands anywhere in the world. Region 2 can also use the 21.4-22 / 24.25-27.5 GHz bands for HAPS services. Usage of those bands are of course subject to limitations regarding link directions and interference protection.

4. Satellites of love

One of the biggest points of contention was what all of this means for satellite operators, who were generally unhappy with the outcome of WRC-15 that saw some satellite frequencies cannibalized for 5G, particularly the lower part of the extended C-band (3.4-3.6 GHz).

C-band frequencies weren’t on the agenda for WRC-19, but the key concern for the satellite sector was protecting existing frequencies and gaining as much additional spectrum as possible.

They got their wish. Among other things, the ITU agreed to protect frequency assignments for broadcasting-satellite services with a priority mechanism for developing countries to regain access to spectrum orbit resources. The ITU also agreed to protect earth exploration-satellites and consider a global band (22.55-23.15 GHz) for satellite tracking, telemetry and control, and provided expanded coverage and enhanced capabilities for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

Satellite industry group GVF is well pleased.

And now, WRC-23

And so much for WRC-19.

Naturally, everyone is already making plans for the next WRC in 2023. Items already slated for discussion include earth stations in motion (i.e. broadband connections from GEOsats to moving vehicles like aircraft, ships and land vehicles), aeronautical mobile applications and extra spectrum for GMDSS).

As you might expect, the GSMA will also be lobbying for even more 5G spectrum, ideally in the mid- and low-frequency bands below 1 GHz.

One other interesting item for WRC-23 is “high-altitude IMT base stations (HIBS)” – which loosely translates as “4G for HAPS”. The ITU will be looking at the feasibility of allowing HAPS to use the same frequency bands as terrestrial 4G systems to deliver 4G connectivity to underserved and remote areas.

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