World Radio Conference Outcomes, By Patricia Paoletta     Print Email

World Radio Conference Outcomes

By Patricia Paoletta, Washington DC

The latest World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) wrapped up in late November after four long weeks of negotiations between 3400 delegates from around 165 Member States. All in all, the WRC resulted in positive outcomes for both 5G and Wi-Fi, and will benefit both the U.S. and Europe's communications agendas, particularly with respect to the decisions on spectrum to be allocated for the all-important 5G service. The effect will be to ensure the more rapid development of the next generation of mobile broadband in a manner consistent with U.S. planning and existing development.  Debates on 5G dominated the conference, but allocations for high-altitude platform stations (“HAPS”) sought by U.S. based firms were also favorable. As a result, plans to provide additional internet service to underserved areas may be accelerated.

The U.S. Delegation was led by Ambassador Grace Koh, who served as President Trump’s communications policy advisor in the first year of his presidency at the National Economic Council in the White House.  European countries organize their attendance at WRC through their own country delegations, but Alexander Kuhn, of Germany’s spectrum regulator, who served as the European Chair for their regional preparatory group CEPT, was Europe’s lead spokesperson throughout the Conference.

The WRC was held in Egypt’s premier resort area on the Red Sea, Sharm el-Sheikh, the site of Mid-East peace talks and other important international negotiations.  The Government of Egypt and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) hosts often referred to Sharm as the City of Peace, in an effort to get differing parties to come to an agreement on contentious issues. Parties resisted such efforts for weeks.  In many instances, key issues were not agreed until the final hours of the month-long Conference, where countries finally agreed to revisions to the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the global use of radio spectrum and satellite orbits.  After four long years of study and debate, the WRC resulted in over 15 Gigahertz of high-band spectrum for 5G – the fifth generation of cellular broadband service – being “identified” in the ITU Table of spectrum allocations, as well as important strides for Wi-Fi and its next-generation, Wi-Fi 6.

Europe and the U.S. shared some goals going into the WRC for 5G and Wi-Fi, while other goals diverged.  Europe prizes 5G – called “IMT” by the ITU - foremost for its societal impact, including enhanced productivity of “vertical” sectors like transportation, healthcare, smart cities, and industry, and even has decided to license industrial players like Bosch directly for the use of valuable mid-band spectrum, rather than reserve such coveted 5G spectrum for mobile operators like Deutsch Telekom or Vodafone.  The U.S. has focused on 5G as a way to beat China and other competitive rivals in the development of adjacent technology, like Artificial Intelligence or Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality.

Countries prepare for WRCs through regional groups.  The U.S. prepares for a WRC through the Organization of American States Commission on International Telecommunications (“CITEL”). Europe prepares through CEPT which includes 48 countries, including the likes of Switzerland, Turkey and Russia, compared to the 34 countries in the Americas preparatory group, CITEL.  With 50% more countries to organize, European negotiators at a WRC are less likely to move off of a European common proposal lightly.  Russia has also organized an additional preparatory group consisting of the former Soviet Union, called the Regional Commonwealth on Communications, which gives Russia outsized influence at a WRC.  At WRC-19, Russia used this power, and blocked many of the far more numerous CITEL proposals, sometimes apparently for no reason other than to have bargaining power at the end of the Conference on how to satisfy an agenda item or a proposed new agenda for the next WRC, in 2023. CITEL comprises almost all of ITU Region 2 (with the exception of Venezuela and Cuba), while Europe makes up only a portion of Region 1, along with Africa and the Middle East.  That dynamic makes Europe, while an economic power, dependent on Africa and the Middle East for unity across Region 1.

On 5G, CITEL proposed identification of several swaths of high-band spectrum, while CEPT targeted just one overlapping band, but also included a higher range of spectrum.  The FCC has already made that higher band available for unlicensed “Wi-Gig” technologies several years earlier.  But due to highly effective advocacy by mobile network vendors headquartered in Europe like Ericsson, Nokia, and Siemens, the vendors and their European trade association GSMA had convinced Africa that that high-band (66-71 GHz) was perfect for 5G.  Africa, which is highly reliant on satellite communications, was also less interested in targeting the lower “millimeter wave” bands, which have been considered predominantly as satellite bands until recently.

At the WRC, while the U.S. initially opposed the identification of 66-71 GHz for IMT, at the end of the day the U.S. agreed to support global identification of the band for IMT, in exchange for favorable operational conditions for 5G in the lower bands.  Where Region 2 held its ground was in the negotiation of a study item for the WRC-23 agenda, for IMT identification of spectrum in the mid-band range. The FCC proposed last year to make one of the bands under negotiation - the 6 GHz range - available for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies, provided incumbents could be protected.  The 6 GHz band has been targeted for the last several years by the Wi-Fi industry for Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of Wi-Fi, which will deliver faster speeds, and connect more devices.  Wi-Fi 6 is premised on broader channels of spectrum which are not currently available to the industry. With each new generation of licensed cellular, smartphone users offload more and more of their traffic to Wi-Fi while at home or in their offices.  Approximately 80% of all mobile broadband network is expected to be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2025.  So more robust Wi-Fi is also a crucial component of effective 5G deployment. 

Two years ago, in December 2017, Europe began a review of allowing Wi-Fi in the lower part of the 6 GHz band.  But earlier this year China began to advocate the entire 6 GHz for IMT.  As with the 66 GHz band for IMT, Africa agreed to champion the entire 6 GHz band for study over the next four years, with possible identification of the band at WRC-23 for IMT.  While Europe came into the Conference with no position for mid-band IMT for WRC-23, due to pressure from Africa and China, it agreed to support the upper portion for IMT study.  But due to opposition from Region 2 and Region 3, Asia, the study of the upper band for IMT is limited to Region 1.  Region 2 agreed to study spectrum around 3 GHz for IMT in WRC-23, as well as 10 – 10.5 GHz.  Perhaps reflecting some exhaustion with IMT studies at the ITU-R after eight long years of such battles, the only range agreed for global study for IMT was the 100 MHz at 7025-7125 MHz.

While IMT (5G) may have exhausted delegates, innovative high-altitude stations continued to capture their imagination at WRC-19.  The Conference ended up identifying an unprecedented amount of new global uplink and downlink spectrum for high-altitude platform stations (“HAPS”).  Defined by the ITU as stations that station-keep approximately 60,000 feet in the stratosphere (roughly twice the altitude of cruising civil aircraft), HAPS were supported by WRC-19 as a more affordable means to deliver broadband to underserved and remote areas.  The Conference also agreed to study new mobile links from HAPS, in spectrum below 2.7 GHz, to further close the digital divide.  Due to interest from Google and Facebook in 2015, the U.S. championed the study of higher bands for fixed links from HAPS at the last WRC.  CITEL was a strong proponent of adequate amounts of global uplink and downlink spectrum at WRC-19.  But Europe was more than an equal partner, due to interest from European aviation manufacturers Thales, which is pursuing a lighter-than-air dirigible HAPS, and Airbus, which is pursuing a fixed-wing solar plane.  But it was Japan, for Softbank, that championed a new agenda item for HAPS as IMT base stations for decision at WRC-23.  Support for high-altitude platforms as an innovative means of closing the digital divide now is a global phenomenon.  

Europe and the U.S. were also active through CEPT and CITEL on Wi-Fi.  Prior to this WRC, the Radio Regulations limited Wi-Fi use in the lower 5 GHz band to low-power indoor devices.  In 2014, the FCC liberalized its Wi-Fi rules to allow higher-power outdoor access points, such as in sports stadiums and corporate campuses, but with antenna-pointing restrictions to protect a satellite system also using the band.  Meanwhile, Europe has been exploring the lower 5 GHz band for in-vehicle use with connected cars and greater use in trains.  Europe’s focus was on facilitating in-vehicle use, while the U.S. and its Region proposed changing the existing Radio Regulations to allow outdoor, higher-power use, with protections for the satellite system.  Against strong opposition from Russia and initially from China, CITEL succeeded in both supporting CEPT’s more limited in-vehicle goal, while creating a global groundswell for more accommodating outdoor use of Wi-Fi.  In the face of strong interest in liberalized rules from Japan and Korea, China agreed to support revised Radio Regulations that provide flexibility to countries that wish to allow outdoor Wi-Fi in band. As noted earlier the results at Sharm El Sheik were positive for both the U.S. and Europe.

Patricia Paoletta attended the WRC as a U.S. Delegate and is a partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP.  Ms. Paoletta formerly served at the FCC, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Trade Representative. The views expressed above are her own and represent neither those of her clients or partners.