mmWave and satellite are the highlights of World Radio Conference 2019

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) held its latest World Radio Conference (WRC-19) in Egypt over the past few weeks, providing a new set of rules to achieve global or regional harmonization in key 5G spectrum bands.

Agreements signed by 3,400 delegates from 165 states were enshrined in an international treaty on radio and satellite operations, the Final Acts of the Radio Regulations.

Although the previous meeting, WRC-15, had listed a set of candidate bands in millimeter wave spectrum for further study, 2019 was the year when mmWave became part of the international treaty, rather than just subject to country-specific regulatory decisions. The high bands identified as international mobile spectrum were 24.25-27.5 GHz, 37-43.5 GHz, 45.5-47 GHz, 47.2-48.2 and 66-71 GHz.

This omits the 28 GHz band, which has been adopted by US operators. The WRC-15 list also excluded 28 GHz in favor of 26 GHz, but it was expected that it might add 28 GHz during the 2019 event, in response to a virtual fait accompli from the USA. As it stands, it seems the USA will be in its common position of taking its own path on certain spectrum plans and band plans, with consequences for the cost and availability of equipment and devices.

In total, 17.25 GHz of spectrum was identified at the WRC-19 conference, compared to the 1.9 GHz which was available before it. Of this, 14.75 GHz has been harmonized on a global basis, resulting in 85% global harmonization overall, a boost for economies of scale, device availability and roaming.

A statement from ITU said protections were guaranteed for the Earth exploration satellite service (EESS) as well as meteorological and other passive services in bands adjacent to the new mobile ones. It added that steps were taken to ensure that radio astronomy stations would be protected from any harmful radio interference from other space stations or satellite systems in orbit.

“WRC-19 paves the way for new, more innovative ways to connect the world using both terrestrial and space-based communication technologies,” said ITU secretary general Houlin Zhao. “As leading edge broadband technology manifests itself in new industrial developments, people in the remotest areas will also get better and more affordable access.”

“WRC-19 has brought the mobile industry a step closer to making the full power of 5G something everyone can experience,” said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA. “Countries struck the right balance in opening up groundbreaking possibilities for 5G while protecting existing radio services worldwide. The mobile industry’s goal going into WRC-19 was to identify enough 5G spectrum to deliver long-lasting socio-economic benefits. WRC-19 delivered on this goal, and also secured a pathway to 5G’s future success in the agenda for WRC-23.”

Some previous WRC events have been accused of being biased towards radio and terrestrial concerns at the expense of satellite, but with satellite increasingly seen as an essential element of 5G, and of the goal of ubiquitous global coverage, there was more balance in 2019. Satellite-related decisions taken at the conference included:

  • Support for improved satellite Internet access for planes, ships and trains
  • Enabling deployment of ubiquitous satellite terminals to bring increased broadband connectivity to many parts of the world
  • Providing additional spectrum to improve satellite services to end users
  • Protecting communications delivered by satellites from harmful interference
  • Potentially allocating additional spectrum for satellite services at a future WRC

David Meltzer, head of the global satellite trade association GVF , commented:  “Satellites today are bringing critical communications to all areas of the world which power economies, entertain billions, and saves lives. Millions of people who otherwise are on the other side of the digital divide are able to connect to the internet via satellites and many more will cross the divide because of satellites. Spectrum is the oxygen that brings such services alive.”

He added: “The decisions reached at the Conference protecting existing satellite spectrum and providing access to more spectrum will enable satellites to maintain and grow these and future services with advances in satellite and antenna technologies and increased capacity.”

The agenda was also set for the 2023 conference, which will focus on additional midband and low frequency options for cellular, among other topics. The GSMA calling for work to identify more sub-GHz bands to extend coverage cost-effectively and support the IoT.