5G and the World Radio Conference, By Patricia Paoletta     Print Email

5G and the World Radio Conference 

By Patricia Paoletta, Washington DC

You may have heard that the United States is in “a Race to 5G.” 5G—or the Fifth Generation of wireless broadband—will be 100x faster than 4G, connect up to 100x more devices, and be 5x more responsive through lower latency. 5G is expected to connect people, things, transport systems, and cities in smart-networked, always-on environments. 5G will transport a huge amount of content much faster, reliably connect millions of devices, and process very high volumes of data with minimal delay.


If the U.S. is a contestant in this Race to 5G, it must be a global race. Where will it be held, and for how long? The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), the “Olympics of spectrum” so to speak, which commenced this week in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Hosted by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) every four years, the WRC will last a month. Are there other viable contestants in this race? Sure—China, Japan, South Korea, and Europe generally.

Europe approached its “race” prep differently than the U.S., valuing 5G foremost for its societal impact, including enhanced productivity of “vertical” sectors like transportation, healthcare, smart cities, industry, etc. Europe is ahead of the U.S. in supporting vertical sectors with 5G apps like connected cars, unmanned tractors and trucks, aerial and other drones, and industrial IoT (Internet of Things, like factory sensors and assembly robots). The U.S., which arguably won the race to 4G by getting more low- and mid-band licensed spectrum out to the market for the cellular operators, and who leveraged unlicensed Wi-Fi for bandwidth-rich apps, has prepped for its race by getting more high-band spectrum out to the market. The U.S. has already held two auctions of high-band spectrum (at 28 GHz and 24 GHz) over the last two-years, and is slated to auction more high-band spectrum next year. High-band spectrum supports fast data rates and greater capacity, and is ideal for the densification of mobile networks in cities, while mid-band spectrum provides greater coverage.

Some are calling this the “5G WRC,” since so much spectrum is expected to be identified in the higher bands. The WRC began October 28 and lasts through November 23.

The ITU manages an international treaty called the “Radio Regulations” which govern the use of spectrum on Member States’ borders. Article 5 of this treaty contains the international table of spectrum allocations. The general rule of thumb is that radio services (such as smartphones, satellites, broadcasting and aeronautical, etc.) that are operating in accordance with the Table of Allocations must be protected from interference by a neighboring administration’s radio services. Countries are sovereign to manage spectrum as they see fit within their own territory, so long as their authorized services don’t cause interference to a neighbor’s service that is licensed consistent with this Table of Allocations.  Of course, equipment manufacturers and vendors prefer to have the largest addressable market so they can build and sell the same radios for more markets, even if the cellular signal cannot propagate across oceans.

Today, there is almost 2,000 MHz worth of spectrum identified in the Table of Allocations for an application in the mobile service that the ITU calls “International Mobile Telecommunications” or IMT, which basically tracks to mobile broadband. The current identifications are in “low-band” spectrum, below 1 GHz, or “mid-band” spectrum, up to 4.9 GHz. At a WRC—a treaty-level conference—countries negotiate changes to the Table of Allocations. They also negotiate the study agenda for action at the next WRC in four years.

This year’s WRC will possibly identify as much as 11,000 MHz of “high-band” spectrum for 5G, with power limits that protect satellite and other incumbent services, but still allow mobile 5G services to operate consistent with their standard. In 2015, the earlier WRC agreed to study the range 24 – 86 GHz for possible identification this year. The U.S., through its Americas Region (the thirty-four countries from North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean that are members of the Organization of American States), supports the identification of this spectrum for 5G in a different mix than Europe. The Americas propose this mix of 11,000 MHz lower in the band, including in the 37-40 GHz and 47 GHz ranges where the U.S. plans to hold auctions next year. Europe’s proposal for approximately 11,000 MHZ includes the 66-71 GHz, which the U.S. made accessible for unlicensed devices in its 5G proceeding, Spectrum Frontiers, a few years back.

Which Region will win the day at WRC? Stay tuned, but history suggests that licensed spectrum lower in a range, coupled with unlicensed spectrum, is the winning strategy for deployment at home.

The agenda for the next WRC in 2023, negotiated next month in Egypt, will likely include an agenda item on 5G spectrum in the mid-band. Over the years, the U.S. has learned to work within its Region to maximize its success at WRCs. Europe, with almost 50% more countries inputting into the development of European Common Proposals (ECPs) for WRCs, often comes into a WRC with Proposals that have deeper and broader buy-in. Europe prepares for WRCs through the Conference of Post and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), which is broader than the European Union. CEPT includes 48 countries, including the likes of Switzerland, Turkey and Russia. With such a high number of countries agreeing to an ECP, the EU negotiators at a WRC are less likely to move off of an ECP 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.


The U.S. won the race to 4G because it made more low-band spectrum available for license to its cellular operators, but those U.S. operators were able to leverage more unlicensed Wi-Fi in the 5 GHz band. Europeans have never had as much 5 GHz Wi-Fi available to them, due to its own mix of government radar and satellite incumbents. The last several WRCs also studied the possibility of identifying more Wi-Fi spectrum (called “RLAN” for Radiocommunication Local Area Networks at the ITU), but Russia, Iran and other regimes less supportive of Wi-Fi were able to block such identifications. Realizing the importance of making more Wi-Fi, or RLAN, spectrum available within Europe to support affordable broadband, CEPT proposed a study of the adjacent 6 GHz band for RLAN availability in December 2017. The Wi-Fi industry has targeted the 6 GHz band for next-generation Wi-Fi, given the availability of broader channels not available in the 5 GHz or 2.4 GHz bands. Wi-Fi 6 will allow more seamless connectivity in device-dense environments like sports stadiums, transportation hubs, and industrial parks. Wi-Fi 6 will also support far more IoT connected devices than earlier generations, so will improve Industrial IoT functionality. Eight months later, the FCC similarly proposed that the 6 GHz band be made available for unlicensed Wi-Fi and other technologies.

Earlier this year, in an apparent spoiler move, China proposed studying the 6 GHz band for licensed cellular technology as part of the WRC-23 agenda, to be negotiated in Egypt. The scope of the mid-band study, particularly the inclusion of 6 GHz which both the U.S. and Europe propose for unlicensed technologies, will be a pitched battle at WRC, likely going down to the final days of the Conference.

WRC-19 will focus on other innovative platforms to deliver broadband. Given technological developments with lithium-ion batteries, antenna beam-forming, solar panels, and light-weight composite materials, high-altitude platforms (HAPS) at 20 km promise broadband speeds at more affordable price points for remote areas. CEPT has supported high-band identification of spectrum for HAPS at WRC-19 because of the interest of several of its aviation manufacturers, including Airbus, that has been developing a fixed-wing unmanned plane powered by solar-panels, and Thales, which has explored a lighter-than air dirigible to deliver broadband. The U.S. championed the study of HAPS at WRC-15, for decision at WRC-19, due to interest from Facebook and Google to deliver broadband more affordably in remote or underserved areas. Now the entire Americas Region, including the U.S., has a proposal for identifications for HAPS. Japan, which had been an early supporter of HAPS when first put on the Table of Allocations more than twenty years ago, is now pursuing a new agenda item for WRC-23 for high-altitude IMT base stations in the mid-band, due to interest from Softbank.

The explosion of non-geosynchronous satellite systems (NGSO) operating in low-Earth orbit also promise broadband speeds at lower cost than earlier satellite technology. HAPS and NGSO systems will also see action at WRC-19, including with spectrum identifications at WRC-19 for HAPS, and more studies for action in WRC-23 on additional spectrum bands.

Since 5G is an ecosystem of multiple platforms, WRC-19 will be the 5G WRC, with Europe and the U.S. in the lead.

Patricia Paoletta, who is attending the WRC as a U.S. Delegate, is a partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP and 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.