Take your seats – the WRC-19 spectrum war is about to begin

WRC-19 starts October 28, so here's a file photo from the opening ceremony of WRC-15 in Geneva. Image credit: ITU | D. Woldu

Next week the World Radio Conference (WRC) [not to be confused with the other WRC. – Ed.] reconvenes in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to revisit the perennial problem of who gets what spectrum and how much for a variety of services.

While recent WRCs have mainly focused on the mobile and satellite sectors arguing over which side should get all the spectrum, the conference is actually broader in scope, not least because demand for wireless broadband connectivity is growing swiftly for a wide variety of applications. And there’s only so much spectrum to go around.

That’s not to say mobile and satellite players won’t be fighting over spectrum this time – there will reportedly be plenty of that. This time around, WRC-19 will be looking for spectrum solutions for numerous other wireless services, from Wi-Fi and autonomous cars to drones and broadband balloons.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the major issues WRC-19 hopes to sort out by the time the conference wraps up on November 22:

1. 5G (obviously)

With 5G now a thing and expected to ramp up considerably from 2020 onward, the GSMA is already lobbying for even more spectrum to satisfy demand. Most of the current 5G deployments are using either the 28-GHz mmWave band or the 3.5-GHz band (mostly the latter, for now), but WRC-19 will be looking at additional mmWave bands ranging from 24.25 GHz to 86 GHz.

The GSMA is specifically pushing for spectrum in the 26, 40 and 66 GHz bands [PDF], with its usual argument that 5G will add hundreds of billions of dollars to the global GDP, but only if the GSMA gets all the spectrum it’s asking for, and do you really want to deprive the world of all that awesome economic growth? Etc.

2. Non-GEO broadband satellite systems

From SoftBank’s OneWeb to Amazon’s Kuiper System and SpaceX’s Starlink, numerous players still believe that constellations of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites can make superfast broadband connectivity available to literally everywhere on the planet. These systems go far beyond the modest 66-bird system currently operated by LEOsat pioneer Iridium. OneWeb is planning a constellation of somewhere between 650 and 1,000+ LEOsats; Amazon intends to launch 3,236 LEOsats for Kuiper; and this week, SpaceX notified the ITU that it has expanded Starlink from 12,000 satellites to 42,000.

Those are just the sexy big-name projects. Other LEOsat and MEOsat projects are also in the pipeline, and WRC-19 has been tasked to sort out a regulatory framework to handle the uplink and downlink spectrum needs of massive fleets of non-stationary satellites swarming over the earth, including requirements for frequency assignments, to make sure they don’t interfere with each other or anyone else.

WRC-19 will also be looking at how to accommodate short-duration non-GEOsat projects utilizing pico- and nanosatellites for research purposes. On a related note, it will also look at issues related to “earth stations in motion” (which is to say, broadband satellite connectivity for airplanes, ships and land vehicles that connect directly to GEO broadband satellites).

3. Intelligent transport systems (ITS)

Wireless tech is expected to play a greater role in urban transport systems, especially as connected vehicles become the norm, and as autonomous vehicles eventually become a reality. The ITS concept involves equipping roads and streets with wireless connectivity that can facilitate vehicle navigation and traffic control, among other things. The mobile industry is pushing C-V2X as a way for cellcos to provide ITS connectivity, but ITS also incorporates other wireless technologies such as sensors, radar and lidar.

WRC-19 plans to identify spectrum bands that can be use to harmonize ITS deployments either globally or regionally, with the 5.8-GHz band currently generating a lot of interest.

4. High-altitude platform systems (HAPS)

Defined by the ITU as radio stations located 20-50km above the earth, HAPS would include projects like Google’s Loon project and UAVs providing wireless broadband connectivity to unconnected rural areas. While such projects have struggled to prove commercially viable as consumer broadband alternatives, they could still be used to provide temporary broadband connectivity and backhaul links during emergency situations such as areas impacted by natural disasters.

WRC-19 will be looking at how HAPS deployments can co-exist within the overall spectrum universe in different regions. Six different sets of mmWave spectrum bands are under consideration, some of which are also coveted by mobile and satellite players (notably the 24.25-27.5 GHz and 38-39.5 GHz bands).

5. Radio local area networks (RLANs)

RLANs include Wi-Fi and other technologies using the unlicensed 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands, both of which are getting crowded, especially as mobile operators still depend on them for data offload and in some cases may be using the 5-GHz band for additional LTE capacity with LAA technology. WRC-19 will attempt to identify new bands that could potentially be set aside for Wi-Fi, although with so many existing services needing protection and new services competing for new allocations, the WRC will have its work cut out for it on this front.

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