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As always, the World Radio Conference has had to attempt a difficult balancing act between competing claims on spectrum resources, and that gets harder on each occasion, particularly as the mobile industry's demands for ever-greater broadband capacity grow. While recognising the social and economic impact of mobile broadband, the WRC also has to be mindful of the needs of other user. In the 2015 conference, which concluded at the end of last week after more than three weeks of discussions, it particularly had to address the concerns of the broadcasting and satellite sectors.
The broadcasting industry generally reacted favourably to the decisions made in the 700 MHz and sub-700 MHz bands. The first major outcomes of the event allocated the 700 MHz spectrum as a global mobile broadband resource, which will variously be used for LTE-Advanced, IoT and 5G services. However, although spectrum below 694 MHz is being repurposed for cellular networks in some countries, notably the US, the WRC resisted lobbying from the mobile industry and kept it in the hands of the TV sector in Region 1 (EMEA).
This conference was not specifically tasked with looking at 5G spectrum allocations, though that will be a central agenda item in the 2019 event. However, some of the decisions, including 700 MHz harmonization, will influence how, and when, some MNOs can deploy 5G. And WRC-15 delegates approved several agenda items for 2019, which will be directly related to 5G, particularly related to high frequency spectrum. Many 5G activities are focused on bands above 6 GHz, and right up to 100 GHz and beyond, with the view that exploiting these high capacity and underused airwaves will be the only way to keep meeting the levels of demand for mobile data.
However, the first wave of 5G standards and deployments are likely to remain concentrated on traditional sub-6 GHz bands, so that WRC-19 can set the stage for a second phase of work, which will need to address the considerable challenges of creating efficient radio designs for high frequencies.
John Giusti, chief regulatory officer of the GSMA, said in a statement: "We acknowledge the agreement at WRC-15 for a new agenda item for WRC-19 to identify high frequency bands above 24 GHz for 5G mobile services. This is a critical first stage in the journey towards a new wave of mobile innovation, considerably faster than existing technologies and driving a hyper-connected society in which mobile will play an ever more important role in people's lives."
In the shorter term, the mobile industry now has three additional globally harmonized bands - harmonization, as Giusti commented, is "key to driving the economies of scale needed to deliver low cost, ubiquitous mobile broadband to consumers around the globe". As well as the 700 MHz (694-790 MHz) spectrum, the others are 200 MHz in the C-band (3.4-3.6 GHz), which is seen as an important capacity band for small cells; and the L-band in 1427-1518 MHz, which provides a balance of coverage and capacity.
The GSMA may not have got its way on the sub-700 MHz band this time, but its tone was optimistic. Giusti said: "The GSMA particularly commends the vision shown by many countries seeking the flexibility to use the sub-700MHz band (especially 610-694/698 MHz) for mobile broadband. Not only can legacy television services in the band be delivered far more efficiently using less spectrum, but the reality is that consumer habits are evolving as video content is increasingly accessed via mobile devices. Allowing both mobile and broadcasting in the band gives these governments the ability to respond to the changing needs of their citizens."
The satellite industry had lobbied heavily ahead of the Geneva event, aware that some of the bands which the cellular operators are eyeing for 5G are currently used for satellite. A group of global and regional satellite industry assocations issued a statement, under the auspices of the Satellite Spectrum Initiative, which was generally upbeat about the WRC outcomes.
The statement read "The world's governments resoundingly affirmed a clear vision for the importance of many vital and irreplaceable services provided today over satellite. They also agreed on a clear framework for future access to spectrum for innovative satellite communications." The groups pointed out that, while spectrum in the L and C bands was harmonized for mobile IMT use, there were clear measures to protect adjacent satellite users in 1518-1559 MHz, and there was no reallocation of the upper portion of the C-band, in 3.6-4.2 GHz.
The conference did not include any globally harmonized bandsi, currently used for satellite services in the C, Ku or Ka bands, within the WRC-19 agenda item to identify future 5G spectrum, leading satellite delegates to boast that they had preserved the Ka band, in particular.
Several agenda items were adopted for future WRC conferences, including a study for 2019 of additional fixed satellite service (FSS) airwaves in 51.4-52.4 GHz. In addition, an agenda item for WRC-23 was adopted, focused on additional satellite spectrum in 37.5-39.5 GHz. And a resolution was adopted, which paves the way for using FSS links for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones.
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The most important decision so far from the ITU's World Radio Conference (WRC-15) is to move the 700 MHz band from a regionally to a globally harmonised allocation for mobile broadband.
The move was widely expected, but is significant nonetheless, setting the stage for global services - LTE or 5G - in the 694-790 MHz spectrum, and for major economic impact on LTE roll-out costs, in Africa in particular.
In 2007, it was allocated for this purpose in the Americas and Asia-Pacific (ITU Regions 2 and 3), but not in EMEA (Region 1). For Region 1, incorporating Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa, a decision at WRC-12 created the possibility of allocating the 700 MHz band after WRC-15 for mobile service.
However, this high level allocation does not lead magically to the economies of scale which would accompany a virgin global band. North American operators have already deployed LTE in 700 MHz, but with a fragmented band plan which is very different from those elsewhere, creating problems for handset uniformity, and roaming, within US borders, let alone internationally.
And the GSMA, which represents mobile operators, is not satisfied just with this spectrum, but wants the ITU to open up the sub-700 MHz band (470-694 MHz) for cellular use also. This spectrum, with its excellent range and indoor penetration, would provide a valuable coverage band for the machine-to-machine services which will be a bedrock of 5G business cases.
The 700 MHz decision, then, is something of a tidying-up exercise, since many countries are already allocating the frequencies and even deploying networks. In the Americas and many Asia-Pacific nations, 700 MHz was the first digital dividend spectrum to be repurposed from broadcast to mobile broadband use. Outside north America, most regulators have adopted a fairly harmonized band plan known as AP700 (driven from Asia-Pacific but also supported by most Latin American administrations).
In the EMEA region, 800 MHz was the first digital dividend and has been widely harnessed for LTE deployments or plans, with 700 MHz providing a second dividend. This region is divided on whether to follow the AP700 plan - most operators and regulators would like to get as close to it as possible, to maximize economic efficiencies and global roaming, but many will be unable to follow it completely, because of interference issues with other services.
Some countries are going ahead with 700 MHz auctions even though the frequencies will not usually be freed up until near the end of the decade, and even without full clarity on the band plans. Germany was the first European country to sell this spectrum, and France followed suit, concluding its auction last week.
The ITU said its latest decision would not harm other sectors, despite lobbying from broadcasters and aeronautical navigation agencies.
ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said in a statement: "The WRC-15 decision represents a landmark in the development of broadband mobile on a worldwide scale, regardless of location, network or terminal used. It goes a long way in enabling bridging of the digital divide, while fully protecting the other services currently operated in the band."
The provisions adopted by the ITU include protections for broadcasting and aircraft navigation systems.
François Rancy, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, added: "The global harmonization of the 694-790 MHz frequency band that has been decided by WRC-15 paves the way for manufacturers and mobile operators to offer mobile broadband at an affordable price in currently underserved areas."
The biggest impact of global 700 MHz is likely to be in Africa. In Europe, the 700 MHz spectrum is likely to be incremental to many carriers' business cases, whereas in Africa, it will often be central to delivering broadband on an unprecedented scale, with the social and economic impact that delivers. There are signs of a coming mobile broadband boom in parts of this diverse continent - a report from the GSMA earlier this year forecast that the number of unique mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa will pass the 500m mark in 2020.
Africa delegations surprised everyone at the WRC-12 conference by getting the ITU to agree that the 700 MHz band could also become a second digital dividend in Region 1 after WRC-15. In September 2014, a meeting of the ITU and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), saw Africa become the first region in the world to come up with a harmonized band plan for both the digital dividend bands. The September meeting resulting in a coordinated mechanism for the dividend agreed by 47 sub-Saharan African countries. The consolidation of national plans conforms with the regulations originally set out in 2006 at the ITU's Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06), and with international switchover deadlines of June 2015 (for UHF) and June 2020 (for VHF in 33 countries).
Aims of digital inclusion and new services would be further supported by adding the sub-700 MHz band, argued GSMA chief regulatory officer, John Giusti. He denied that the Association is ignoring the needs of broadcasters, proposing that mobile broadband should gain a co-primary allocation, and employ the latest technology to enable harmonious sharing.
Speaking in Geneva, where the WRC is taking place, he said: "Today, the UHF band is lightly used for terrestrial broadcasting in many countries. By implementing the latest technologies, these legacy services could be maintained in a smaller amount of spectrum, maximizing the use of this valuable spectrum resource by allowing both mobile and broadcasting below 700 MHz."
He continued: "Adding a co-primary allocation in the sub-700 MHz band at WRC-15 would offer governments the flexibility to meet the changing needs of their citizens, who are increasingly accessing video content via 'second screen' mobile and tablet devices, and expand the well-established socioeconomic benefits generated by mobile broadband. There is no evidence that the existence of a co-primary allocation to mobile has had a negative impact on broadcast investment."
He said that, if no change is introduced in this band, it "would likely not be until at least 2023 before governments could revisit allocations in the sub-700 MHz band, with a further 5-10 years before it would reach the public in the form of new and innovative services."
WRC-15 runs from November 2 to November 27. While specific allocations for 5G are the remit of its successor, WRC-19, some pointers towards future spectrum policies are expected to emerge. However, some operators are likely to use frequencies, including those in 700 MHz, which are part of the current program, for new networks including specific M2M/IoT systems, and/or 5G.
Many carriers believe the propagation qualities of the 700 MHz band will be well suited to low power M2M applications, for instance in smart cities, especially as they may have achieved sufficient coverage for conventional LTE data and voice applications with existing 800 MHz assets, and are turning to higher frequencies, such as 2.6 GHz, to add capacity for consumer services.
Paired with evolving, ultra-low power variants of LTE (NB-IoT and LTE-MTC), some MNOs, especially in Europe, say they will be able to use 700 MHz frequencies to compete with specialized smart city networks such as LoRa and Sigfox. These would-be standards are gaining ground in the absence of an M2M-optimised LTE option, but they have the disadvantage of operating mainly in licence-exempt spectrum (the 868 MHz band in Europe), which has security and reliability implications for mission critical functions.
Qualcomm and others have made proposals to the 3GPP and to regulators to earmark a 2×3 MHz sub-section in the 700 MHz band, specifically for M2M and NB-IoT use. They believe that would help 4G operators be competitive in M2M markets such as smart cities, but others - including many carriers - want all spectrum to be usage-neutral and to have the freedom to deploy whatever seems most appropriate.