Radio Days: World Radiocommunication Conference Concludes Work in Geneva

Spectrum is allocated for wireless local-area networks, high-altitude base stations

7 min read

Geneva, 9 July 2003—Roughly every three years, expert delegations representing virtually every country of the world meet under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to re-divvy and re-allocate the radio spectrum to reflect changing needs. This time around, the World Radiocommunication Conference 2003—an important but rather arcane diplomatic event—took place from 9 June to 4 July in Geneva, with 2506 participants and 151 delegations attending. It was even more widely representative than the previous one, WRC-2000, which took place in Istanbul, and the number of agenda items this year was more than twice as large as three years ago. That made the job of getting work accomplished more challenging than ever [see ”How the WRC Gets Things Done”].

The Istanbul conference, as IEEE Spectrum reported [link ”reported” to /special/wrc2000/index2.html] at the time, was dominated by a single huge issue, allocation of new frequency bands for use in IMT2000 third-generation (3G) cellular telephony systems. This year, in contrast, ”there are many more issues, and many of them are small,” observed Alan Jamieson, a spectrum allocation consultant based in Auckland, New Zealand, who managed the 3G negotiations in Istanbul. Still, some of the items on this year’s agenda also attracted considerable interest because of their commercial potential, as this reporter for Spectrum learned, pacing the corridors, dropping in on sessions, and button-holing delegation leaders as the opportunity arose.

Though security initially was rather tight, as the conference wore on precautions largely boiled down to a couple of guards checking badges. Delegates and the rare technically-minded reporter could move easily in and out of the conference headquarters, during what was the hottest June in Switzerland since 1753. As it happened, adjusting radio regulations for security and emergency relief—be it terrorism, heat and drought, flooding or earthquakes—was one of the more prominent conference themes.

Probably the most important decision making at WRC-2003 was in these areas:

* Harmonizing public protection and disaster relief radio services

* Readying spectrum for high-altitude platforms—for example, balloons—to serve, in effect, as cellular base stations

* Giving airline passengers broadband Internet access

* Getting more spectrum for wireless local-area networks like Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11)

How important are the treaty-force decisions adopted at the radio conferences? Do they actually make things happen, or merely set the stage and open possibilities? Asked about the 3G cellular bust that set in right after Istanbul, where negotiators were much influenced by a momentary 3G boom prompted by the runaway success of Japan’s iMode system, Jamieson emphatically rejected any notion that the WRC-2000 spectrum allocations for 3G were premature. If spectrum hadn’t been identified then, he argued, ”We’d just be going through it now.”

Even in India, where 3G is still considered a distant prospect, cellphone subscriptions are increasing at a rate of 800,000 per month, noted Bharat Bhatia, a member of the Indian delegation to WRC-2003. And it was India, Bhatia emphasized, which first got the subject of emergency relief added to the WRC agenda, in 2000—though it was an uphill battle—another example, he felt, of the radio conference anticipating important emergent needs.

Wi-Fi goes global

The rule of the radio spectrum management game is that new users must take existing users into account, and the right not to suffer harmful interference goes to the heart of what the WRC is about.

A case in point is the proposal to allocate more spectrum for applications like Wi-Fi, an issue eagerly watched by industry. These networks have been proliferating in the 2.4 GHz or ”unlicensed”band, but there they have to compete with garage door openers and microwave ovens [see ”More Air for Wi-Fi?” —link to /WEBONLY/resource/feb03/webs.html]. The ITU agreed to allocate the 5150�5350 MHz and 5470�5725 MHz bands for wireless access services, which would include Wi-Fi.

The United States has already allocated 300 MHz of unlicensed spectrum for such services domestically, in the 5 GHz band. But a global allocation would clearly benefit manufacturers, allowing them to sell one system in all countries.

A point of disagreement between the United States and Europe was whether to restrict the allocation to indoor use. The United States favored both indoor and outdoor use, but Europe opposed outdoor use owing to possible interference with existing services such as military radar and scientific satellite services.

The compromise solution, characterized by delegates as delicate, allows mixed indoor and outdoor use in all save the 5150�5250 MHz band, but encourages regulators to keep use indoors. ”It’s the only [issue] that didn’t turn out as we hoped,” says Edoardo Marelli, head of the frequency management office at the European Space Agency (ESA, Paris). According to Marelli, ESA and the bloc of European nations called CEPT had agreed on outdoor use in the higher band, where ”we don’t have a problem,” but ultimately the two groups failed to make their case prevail.

Other major issues

Other action at WRC-03 ranged from solid decisions on minor topics to more misty pronouncements on important items.

HAPS: A compromise was reached in allocating frequencies for high-altitude platform stations (HAPS), a fixed wireless technology in the works that is essentially a base station in the sky. These are held aloft (about 20 km up) and in place above a major metropolitan area by unmanned craft such as dirigibles or solar-powered aircraft. (The idea of HAPS got some unwanted publicity, when an experimental solar craft, Helios—meant as a step to the long-duration flight vehicles needed for HAPS—crashed into the Pacific on 26 June.) Spectrum in the 47�48 GHz range has been available to everybody for HAPS since 1997. But those frequencies are susceptible to rain attenuation and other sorts of degradation. Japan and the United Sates have been exploring use of the 27.5�28.35 GHz and 31�31.3 GHz bands, which are more efficient but also fairly crowded with active users.

The compromise reached at WRC-03 on HAPS includes a resolution that allows anyone in the Americas to use the 28�31 GHz bands with certain restrictions to protect existing services, and allows other countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa similar rights on an individual basis. ”A lot of people still turn and chuckle when they hear HAPS,” said one U.S. delegate, ”but I happen to think that it is a real thing.”

Disaster relief: Ironically, the conference’s first ”breakthrough”—a compromise on an agenda item intended to seek a harmonized band for public protection and disaster relief—was welcomed by some more for what it didn’t achieve. Public protection and disaster relief are generally narrow-band applications for voice and low-speed data transmission, but there is a growing need for data rates of 500 kilobits per second or even higher.

The ITU agreed to urge countries to harmonize their bands, for the sake of international interoperability, among other reasons. But it did not specify which bands should be the focus of such harmony. Members of the U.S. delegation were pleased to have avoided formally identifying bands, while Europeans felt that the advantage of having the item on the agenda was mainly to see some progress on an important issue. Officials of the European Commission agreed there was not enough consensus on the topic to come to an agreement on a particular slice of spectrum.

Navigation by satellite: This item related to coordination of radionavigation-satellite systems (RNSS), including the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s Glonass, and Europe’s Galileo. It was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and without applying formal procedures for coordinating future systems retroactively, a move strongly opposed by the United States because it could adversely affect its existing GPS. Instead, the procedures will be applied only to systems filed at the ITU after 1 January 2005.

Broadband in flight: Another heavily advertised item which would allow broadband Internet services for airline passengers was also approved, albeit slowly. On the last formal day of the conference, the ITU agreed to an allocation for aeronautical mobile satellite service in the 14�14.5 GHz range that will clear the way for in-flight Internet access. Until the ink was dry that day, ”You could see it, taste it, and smell it, but it didn’t quite happen,” Ambassador Janice Obuchowski, head of the U.S. delegation, said at a press briefing.

Amateur radio: One other knotty issue was successfully resolved on the morning of the conference’s last day. An agreement was made to shift broadcasting stations in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East out of the 7100�7200 kHz band to make room for amateur services. The decision is ”the first time in the history of radio communications that a broadcasting band has been shifted to accommodate the needs of another service,” according to David Sumner, an observer at WRC-03 for the International Amateur Radio Union (Paris). Sumner, who has been lobbying for the band since 1979, told IEEE Spectrum that the change of heart may have something to do with the introduction of digital broadcasting, which will require spectrum allocation change in any event.

Political unions form

While the conference’s accomplishments were not as earth-shaking as those of 2000, a shift in its internal politics could have lasting ramifications. A major recent development cited by many delegates is the emergence of the so-called regional groups. The ITU has traditionally divided the world broadly into regions numbered 1 (Europe, Africa, and the Middle East), 2 (the Americas), and 3 (Asia). But increasingly, organizations within those regions such as the 40-nation CEPT (for Conference of European Posts and Telecommunications), CITEL (which covers the Americas), and Arab and Asian-Pacific groups have been developing common positions.

This year, for the first time, 46 African countries (a notable exception is South Africa) issued joint proposals under the aegis of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU). J. Edane Nkwele, who chairs ATU, told Spectrum that a top issue for Africa at WRC was the Rascom telecommunications satellite. Forty-four African nations inked a deal with telecom service and equipment provider Alcatel (Paris) in June to put a satellite into orbit that would serve the entire continent with voice, data, and Internet. The deal was about 15 years in the making, and will make it possible, for instance, for a person in Libreville, Gabon, to telephone to Lagos, Nigeria, without having to be routed first through Paris, then through London at many times the cost of a similar call in Europe. The system is to be operational by 2006.

One practical result of the proliferation of regional blocks is that delegations come to the conference better prepared than they used to, and with a better understanding not only of their own positions, but those of other regional groups. According to Obuchowski, a veteran of many ITU radio conferences, the regional aspect represents a ”sea change” and is a function of the increasing sophistication of the topics.

That doesn’t mean that countries don’t continue to speak for themselves. A fascinating aspect of the conference is to see the fluidity with which interests dictate alliances. For example, countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda sometimes spoke as individual entities, at other times as a troika, and still at others as part of the ATU.

North-South inequities?

A proposal pressed by Iran and the Arab group raised what has become a perennial issue, remedying historical inequities in access to satellite spectrum and orbital locations. In an emotionally charged session that began Wednesday night at 10:30 and went to midnight, the group tried to argue in the face of a crescendo of opposition for reclaiming spectrum after a fixed period of years. Despite a measure of sympathy from both developing and developed countries, many delegations rejected the move on the ground that restricting the time periods in which satellite licenses are valid would serve nobody’s interests. Ultimately, the resolution’s champions conceded that the issue was for their ”sons [and] grandsons” to solve. When the dust settled, there was very little change. Additional wording was added to recognize that assignments are not forever, and in a time-honored tradition of international negotiation, studies were called for, with a report to be made back to some future competent conference.

Twenty-one items are on the agenda for WRC-07, a success in terms of the widely acknowledged desire to cut the list down to size. Among the items scheduled for the next conference are systems beyond IMT2000, aeronautical telemetry, and space science. As for the impact of decisions taken at WRC-03, popular wisdom suggests that it won’t be visible until much later. Indeed, said one observer, ”a lot of what the WRC does is in the future.”

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