Last month, the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) successfully finalized its work. Now, as we prepare for the next WRC in 2023, member states should consider appropriate changes to the process. By doing so, we can enable the WRC to focus on its core mission — the allocation of spectrum and ensuring the efficient use of  spectrum and orbital resources.

2019 successes and challenges

The WRC-19 was first and foremost successful since it concluded with a signed Final Acts, which is treaty text to be implemented in each of the ITU’s 192-member states. Second, the key agenda items were resolved, with a focus on making available spectrum for new radio services and addressing other important regulatory items including ensuring the more efficient use of the radio spectrum and protecting incumbent services from harmful interference. I can point to several items that were decided at the WRC – and upcoming items placed on the agenda for WRC-23 — which are extremely important to the satellite industry. These include obtaining access to additional spectrum for fixed satellite services, and obtaining flexibility for broadband satellite services to moving platforms such as ships and airplanes.

WRC-19 had numerous agenda items to address, ranging from allocating new spectrum for certain radio services, such as satellite, to ensuring that existing and future services are protected from interference (including the creation of new sharing regimes). The agenda included creating milestones to ensure that spectrum and orbital resources are used most efficiently with the introduction of megaconstellations of non-geostationary orbit satellite systems. Agenda items such as these have regulatory impacts and are clearly within the mandate of the WRC.

Notwithstanding these successes, there were hurdles that had to be surmounted to achieve successful resolution of the conference, as well as some issues that were left unresolved. While some of these issues were difficult because they were controversial, in many cases, they were issues that had no regulatory implications at all, effectively distracting the conference from its core work and making the WRC process significantly more burdensome.

Further, there have been criticisms of the inefficiency of the WRC process, especially when dealing with some of the new applications being rolled out globally. In addition, some criticism has been levied at the conference for the length of time and complexity involved in getting to a “yes.”

However, the most controversial and time-consuming issues of the conference were two items that involved no regulatory action at all — the identification of spectrum for IMT (5G mobile terrestrial services) and high altitude platforms (HAPS).

Both IMT and HAPs, are not radio services, but simply applications within a radio service. Accordingly, for spectrum to be identified for either IMT or HAPs it must be allocated already to the mobile or fixed service, respectively — the service of which the application is part.

Moreover, the two agenda items focused on IMT and HAPs were not resolved at the conference until late in the final plenary sessions, despite long days and weeks of deliberations in smaller meetings of the conference. Compounding the distraction, because of the vast number of frequency bands examined for identification by these applications, many of the WRC delegates were conflicted on what issue should be their focus during an intense, four-week negotiating period with conflicting meetings underway all day and night.

An ongoing distraction

WRC-19 is not the first WRC where the issue of the identification of spectrum for an application, including IMT or HAPs, has arisen. In fact, many of the conferences in the past twenty to thirty years have had these issues on their agenda.

What has changed though, is the amount of focus at each WRC for making these identifications. As demand for terrestrial mobile and fixed applications has increased globally, and as the global marketplace puts greater demand on economies of scale for equipment vendors, the advocates for these applications have been able to refocus the scarce resources of the WRC to focus on these issues, perhaps at the expense of critical conference work that has real regulatory implications.

It is understandable why the member-states pay so much attention to these issues, especially with the coming of 5G: no one wants to be left out of access to the latest technology.

It is important to remember, though, that these applications can be deployed in all bands that are allocated to the relevant radio service in which they operate; therefore, no additional action at the WRC is required. The only benefit of the identification of spectrum for an application is to provide an additional guidepost to member states of the potential use of this spectrum (countries are free to follow or not follow the identification).

Accordingly, each WRC, including WRC-19, expends significant resources on these identifications, which have no regulatory effect, at the expense of items that must be decided at the WRC such as the allocation of spectrum to a specific radio service. In addition, as seen at WRC-19, there are always new proposals to identify spectrum for new applications such as the Internet of Things. If such proposals are successful, they will further impede the WRC and its ability to focus on, as well as efficiently and effectively address its key mission.

Changing the paradigm

This leads to the question of whether the WRC is the correct forum in which to handle the identification of spectrum. While there are other bodies, such as standard bodies, looking at these issues, they do not include governments as decision-makers or even clearly as participants in all cases. So, where to turn? One possible solution is to look at another body of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector, the Radio Assembly, which meets before the WRC during each study cycle.

The Radio Assemblies are responsible for several areas, including approving recommendations from the Study Groups. Such recommendations, while not treaty text, are official ITU documents and could be utilized to provide guidance on the identification of spectrum. This makes sense since identifications have no legal meaning and hence, there is no reason that they must be part of the Final Acts of the WRC.

Whatever the correct forum, it is important that the ITU-R and its member states take the opportunity before WRC-23 to examine how to treat requests for the identification of spectrum.

The fact is that the only role the identification of spectrum plays is to provide a guidepost in the radio regulations — which governments may ignore. Governments, if looking for such a guidepost, should spend this time determining where the most appropriate place to adopt such guideposts are, considering the impact of continuing to use the WRC as the forum and its impact on the WRC’s resources.

We all agree the WRC process is not perfect and, even with a four-week conference, at times we have trouble getting to “yes.” But if we are to objectively look at this process to improve it and make it more successful at resolving the issues within the WC mandate, we must look for areas of change.

It is apparent that one area that can be changed is to remove from the WRC process non-mission critical issues, such as the identification of spectrum, especially when there are other global bodies that can achieve similar purposes.

Jennifer Manner is senior vice president of regulatory affairs at EchoStar Corporation/Hughes Network Systems LLC where she is responsible for the company’s domestic and international regulatory and policy issues, including spectrum allocation and market access. She currently serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.