WASHINGTON — On the opening day of the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) in Dubai, government officials leading the U.S. delegation said their top priorities are to ensure spectrum access for next-generation wireless services and to boost U.S. growth in the space economy.

The four-week long WRC-23 kicked off Nov. 20. The conference is organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to review and revise the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the geostationary-satellite and non-geostationary-satellite orbits.

Speaking with reporters from Dubai, U.S. officials said WRC-23 is a significant opportunity to advance U.S. interests related to telecommunications, innovation, economic growth and national security. The U.S. delegation includes nearly 200 government officials from the State Department, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, NASA and the White House.  

Organizers of the WRC-23 expect about 4,500 government officials from 193 nations to participate, in addition to 900 international organizations and universities.

Several U.S. goals

Nathaniel Fick, U.S. ambassador at large for cyberspace and digital policy, said there are broad objectives the United States seeks to achieve. These include expanding connectivity through 5G and Wi-Fi, unlocking innovation in the space economy and the next generation of space science, protecting U.S. national defense capabilities, and preserving radio frequency for maritime and aviation safety.

Geopolitics are casting a shadow at WRC-23 amid ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. Fick said these ongoing conflicts should not deter progress on technical regulations that the entire global digital economy relies on.

“We’re doing it all in a context of trying to ensure inclusivity, given that a third of the world is still not connected,” said Fick.

Jessica Rosenworcel, chairwoman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, said the United States has to ensure there’s sufficient mobile broadband spectrum to support 5G services and beyond. “In particular, we have the opportunity here at this conference to harmonize the 3.3 to 3.4 gigahertz band and the 3.6 to 3.8 gigahertz band for mobile broadband across our region, which will create a 500 megahertz home for 5G.”

Harmonizing means allocating RF spectrum consistently across borders to enable global roaming and interoperability.

National spectrum strategy

The context for the U.S. agenda is the Biden administration’s National Spectrum Strategy released Nov. 13. It identifies more than 2,700 megahertz of airwaves to study for new uses by both the private sector and federal agencies. 

Rosenworcel said the U.S. is advocating for spectrum for unlicensed services like a new Wi-Fi standard known as Wi-Fi 7. “Beyond that, we think this is the spectrum where we are going to see the growth of augmented and virtual reality.”

She said another key goal is to “foster continued growth and U.S. leadership in the space economy. And that means continuing to support the use and development of space based communications, both geostationary and non geostationary satellite communication systems.”

The U.S. industry expects decisions on frequencies for space-to-space communications, and for spectrum for fixed satellite services in the 17 gigahertz band, she said.

The FCC has proposed opening up more spectrum to non-geostationary satellite operators like Starlink to improve broadband speeds.

Satellite industry concerns

With several American and global technology industry associations lobbying around new wireless technologies, the U.S. delegation has its work cut out navigating international regulatory interests while keeping an eye on fulfilling commercial domestic policy visions.

Rosenworcel did not comment on a proposal to review satellite power limits, which has become a divisive issue among satellite operators ahead of WRC-23.

These limits, known as Equivalent Power Flux Density (EPFD), affect how powerful a radio signal should be in order to avoid disrupting the geostationary spacecraft they fly under while passing over the equator.

Low Earth orbit operators like Amazon and SpaceX are urging the WRC to update the EPFD rules. An industry group called the Alliance for Satellite Broadband says the EPFD limits constrain the ability of non-geostationary satellites to provide broadband connectivity. 

These changes are opposed by some GEO satellite operators.

Fick noted that WRC-23 delegations will be challenged to reconcile a diversity of industry and government priorities from across the globe.

“There is a vibrant private sector involved here with a set of important but sometimes differing equities,” he said. “And we have 193 UN member states, all of which are sovereign, and all of which have their own points of view.”

5G competition with China

Industry groups have voiced concerns that the U.S. is not being assertive enough in allocating spectrum for 5G communications. 

The CTIA association that represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, said it has “watched with increasing alarm as other countries allocate significantly more mid-band spectrum for 5G services.” 

The group said China is ahead of the United States “in terms of prime 5G mid-band allocations for licensed mobile use.”

Rosenworcel noted that the national spectrum strategy puts 2,790 megahertz of spectrum “on the table for possible future mobile use.” But she said it’s also “vitally important that Congress reinstate the FCC’s auction authority. And those are the things that we will be focused on as we return to Washington and work on these issues after WRC.”

With regard to the competition with China over 5G spectrum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steve Lang said “there are some areas where we can work with the Chinese very effectively on some spectrum priorities. There are others where there are real differences, and those differences are sometimes relevant to our approaches to technology and innovation.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...