People who really know the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – you can tell them from their gaunt look and thousand-yard stare – will tell you that every World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) has its Main Event. It’s the issue around which the most money is at stake, in support of which the best cocktail receptions will be held, and on which the conference will spend most of its energy.

At first glance, this year’s Main Event seems to pit elements of the terrestrial mobile and satellite communications industries against one another in what has begun to look like a titanic struggle: terrestrial interests want to use C-band frequencies (3.4-4.2 GHz) to bring us new mobile (IMT) services, and satellite companies want to keep that path for current and new transmissions. And just in case you were not aware, these two types of network cannot share the spectrum.

At a basic level, the scene is set like this: the IMT industry needs more spectrum, and they went hunting in the C-band. This is the ITU equivalent of a lardy brown bear sticking a plump paw into a hive of honey bees and having a good rummage around: the satellite industry uses the C-band heavily, and they came out swinging.

Nowhere To Go But Up

As is usual in any UN environment, the balance of power at a WRC is tilted more than usual towards the proverbial underdog, that is, towards the scores of developing countries which make up the membership. And in a strange way, and contrary to popular belief, these countries provide a certain equilibrium to events. This is because, from year to year, their requests remain consistent: sell us clear, ubiquitous, affordable communications. We cannot, they say, yet afford to roll out the kind of wired networks which you have built in Europe and America. Give us something that gives us the same connectivity without having to fund the same infrastructure.

What is useful about this sort of petition is that it informs how you position a new technology. If – like the terrestrial operators – you are asking for spectrum to support a new IMT service, then you know how to pitch it. The new service must be able to meet those basic demands of clear, ubiquitous, affordable communications. And if you’re trying to hold on to spectrum you already have – like the satellite operators – your

best chance of doing so lies with meeting those same demands. It is in this context that the WRC-2007 will assess this year’s Big Issue, and it is in the same context that a solution starts to take shape.

It’s The Cost of Service, Stupid

The IMT lobby target spectrum lower down the frequency spectrum – the lower the frequency, the farther signals will travel. The farther the signals travel, the fewer base stations are required to provide ubiquitous services. The fewer

base stations required, the lower the

cost of the network, and the service gets cheaper all around. Countries’ demand for affordability then causes IMT to target UHF, and not the C-band.

For the satellite lobby it is

clear that to keep the C-band for their use they will have to have to come to the same conclusion for

the same reasons. C-band has propagation characteristics that allow for service in any weather, and over large, global, unifying beams. Plus, satellite service will not be so expensive if the satellites do not need to be re-tuned (note for the non-technical, among whom I number: this is impossible) and since the earth stations will not need to be exchanged at great expense for those connecting over other bands.

So the triad of developing economy demands – clear, ubiquitous, and affordable communications – drive the agenda of seemingly irreconcilable positions towards a compromise. And in the process we get to the heart of that notion that has colored discussion of telecommunications policy for the last 15 years: Bridging the Digital Divide.

In their steadfast solidarity to satellite services, and in their demands for affordable terrestrial networks, it’s the developing economies, formerly regarded as spoilers of sensible and competitive telecommunications policy, which show us the way.

Gregory Francis is managing director of Access Partnership Limited in London, a firm specializing in the acquisition of spectrum rights internationally.