European Affairs

The conference culminated nearly three years of effort by the international community within the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), one of the specialized organizations of the United Nations, and other international groups to achieve the consensus necessary for all the countries present in Istanbul to sign the final acts of the conference. This updates an international treaty, the Radio Regulations.

Although the conference lasted only four weeks, preparation required hundreds of weeks in multi-lateral meetings in the ITU itself and in the regional preparatory groups representing American, European, Asian-Pacific, Arab and African countries. This enabled the conference to come to a consensus on five issues of major importance, several of which had been left pending by the previous two world radiocommunication conferences held in 1995 and 1997.

The conference confirmed that, as a result of spectrum congestion, satisfying the constantly increasing needs of radiocommunication services without sacrificing current usage of the spectrum, can only be achieved by forcing more and more applications to share the same spectrum. In other words, users must occupy the same spectrum without causing unacceptable levels of interference with each other.

Meeting this challenge requires very complex technical, operational, and regulatory studies before a decision can be taken by a world conference and become international law. The difficulty of this exercise at a global level is that the Radio Regulations must be designed to enable maximum flexibility for each country to satisfy its own requirements.

Over time, there have always been differences in the way individual countries or regions have implemented radiocommunication services in a given band. Different systems involve very large financial investments for either private or government entities, as well as different manufacturing processes, all of which are amortized over periods of up to 30 years.

When changes are required in a given band to ensure worldwide harmonization, the cost of such a change may be counted in billions, or tens of billions of dollars for a given country. This explains why, although WRC is conducted in a diplomatic manner, the work proceeds under extreme pressure.

WRC-2000, which had an unprecedented number of difficult and important topics to handle, also benefited from an unprecedented number of technical and regulatory studies. However, success was driven, to a large extent, by the efforts of the regional preparation groups.

Key to this success was the agreement concluded just before the start of the conference between the European, Arab, and African countries, which led to a common proposal on five major issues, after three years of difficult discussions. Although the Americans and Asia Pacific countries initially objected to the terms of this proposal, after a few "adjustments," the conference was able to reach a final agreement on the issues in terms which were very close to the Euro-Arab-African proposal.

The first major issue dealt with by WRC-2000 was the identification of additional globally harmonized spectrum for the next generation of mobile cellular networks, IMT-2000, also called, in Europe, UMTS. To enable these new networks to be deployed and operational by 2002, the European countries are currently licensing the spectrum which was identified by the ITU in 1992.

The unusually high prices paid by the future operators of these networks to have access to this spectrum (about Û40 billion in the United Kingdom for the auction of five licenses and about Û50 billion in Germany for the auction of six licenses) give a clear indication of their expectations.

The surprising pace of mobile communications development in the last few years has shown that the initial spectrum identified in 1992 will not be sufficient to satisfy the growing needs of the market. Therefore, the WRC-2000 objective was to enable the development of high-speed mobile services by identifying 160 MHz of globally harmonized spectrum.

This was partly achieved by leaving each country maximum flexibility to implement the new services among a set of three frequency bands: the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands, already used by GSM in Europe and many other countries, and an additional band in the 2500 MHz range. In most countries, each of these bands is currently used either by second generation mobile cellular systems or by other applications.

Having the choice between three bands will offer administrations the required flexibility to relocate to other bands at a time they consider appropriate, those applications for which sharing with IMT-2000 would not be feasible.

After the ITU's adoption of worldwide IMT-2000 standards in 1999, the WRC-2000 decision is a key milestone to provide operators and manufacturers with the stable regulatory environment necessary for the major investments associated with the expected development of mobile services.

The benefits that will result from this decision are clear. They include: increased access and reduced cost to the customers; global roaming, (i.e., the possibility to use and be reached at the same mobile phone anywhere in the world); economies of scale for manufacturers and network operators; and a range of new value-added services, including voice, data, internet, and multimedia services.

The second major issue was the allocation of new spectrum to the radionavigation-satellite service (RNSS), to enable the extension of the current Global Positioning System (GPS) and the development of alternative systems, such as the European Galileo. This was necessary to provide the increased performance necessary for the development of mass-market applications relating to positioning such as telecommunications (cellular or satellite) or transportation (cars, vessels, and aircraft) and to avoid a quasi-monopoly of GPS on critical applications.

WRC-2000 was able to nearly double the current spectrum by allocating 171 MHz of additional spectrum to this service in the 1200 MHz and 5000 MHz frequency ranges, which is sufficient to enable Galileo to develop a full set of new radionavigation services. This was made possible by ensuring that specific technical measures will be taken to protect the existing terrestrial radionavigation systems, which currently provide support for aircraft landing in these bands. This is a very critical application and all assurances must be obtained for its protection. The details of these measures will be reviewed by the next WRC.

Another major issue was the review of WRC-97 decisions on the sharing conditions between wideband non-geostationary satellite systems and the other services and systems allocated in 7 GHz of worldwide spectrum in the 11-30 GHz range. The latter includes most of the current geostationary satellite systems; in particular those used for television broadcasting and business communications throughout the world.

Ensuring full protection of these services and systems required detailed regulatory specification of the level of interfering power that non-geostationary satellite systems will be allowed to transmit in these bands. A complete agreement has been reached on this issue, concluding over five years of complex studies and difficult debates.

The result will enable the provision, on a competitive basis, of worldwide satellite services, providing direct customer access to Internet and other wideband services on a fully shared basis. This aspect has raised many expectations for the development of global telecommunications since 1995. WRC-2000 has given the final touch to the 1995 and 1997 conference decisions on this issue, and given a regulatory green light to large non-geostationary satellite systems such as Alcatel's Skybridge and McCaw's Teledesic.

Another important issue was the identification and allocation of spectrum for high density fixed services (HDFS) above 30 GHz. The objective was to satisfy the growing spectrum requirements for the radiocommunication networks involving a very large number of fixed stations, like the backbone infrastructure of mobile cellular networks or wireless local loops, enabling direct custumer access to wideband services. Thirteen GHz of spectrum was identified for that use in the 30-64 GHz range, which represents a very significant step forward for the development of such networks.

It should be noted, however, that the specific feature of HDFS is that it can hardly share spectrum with its satellite counterpart, high density fixed satellite service (HDFSS). Any decision to earmark spectrum for HDFS is, therefore, an indication that HDFSS will be difficult, if not impossible, in the same band within the same geographic area. For this reason, the specific sharing conditions within 2.5 GHz of spectrum around 40 GHz have been left for review by WRC-2003.

A final, important issue dealt with by WRC-2000 was the revision of the plan for broadcasting-satellite service in the 12 GHz band for the Europe, Africa, Asia and Pacific regions. This Plan, which covers 800 MHz of spectrum, was adopted in 1977 and was designed to provide each country in these regions with spectrum corresponding to five analogue television programs (135 MHz).

As a result of technological evolution, this Plan was partially updated at WRC-97, but the possibility of increasing the spectrum assigned to each country was left for review by WRC-2000. This issue was debated intensely during the conference preparatory process.

On one hand, several European countries opposed any such increase. This opposition was based on the fear that it would lead to freezing most of this spectrum because many countries have no intention of using it in the short- or medium-term. This faction believed that the spectrum should be reserved for use by countries with actual requirements at present.

On the other hand, most other countries supported doubling the spectrum assigned to each country to ensure equitable access to spectrum by all countries. As part of a compromise, the second position prevailed, but was coupled with a number of technical and regulatory conditions that will improve the flexibility to use the available resources in this spectrum for non-planned uses.

This ended eight years of politically-loaded discussions between developing and developed countries, as well as production of very complex technical and regulatory studies to establish an agreed balance between the need for efficient use of spectrum and the need for equitable access to this spectrum by all countries.

Although ITU discussions are generally not given a lot of exposure outside a small circle of experts, WRC-2000 has shown that these issues are key to shaping future services that will affect the day-to-day life of a large part of the world's population over the next 20 years.

All the decisions made by the conference on the five issues reported above relate to mass market applications, which are an essential element in the development of the global information society. Thanks to the efforts of the world's radiocommunications community, and through a rare example of international cooperation, technology development will be able to proceed based on the cost-efficient and competitive provision of services.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.