Published March 2016

International Telecommunication Union

The International Telecommunication Union has been the global authority that coordinates national policies on radio communications, particularly radio frequency spectrum and space satellites. As a specialized agency of the United Nations, the ITU has three sectors: Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R), Standardization Sector (ITU-T), and Development Sector (ITU-D). Primarily, ITU-R governs spectrum issues, and every 3-4 years, it organizes the World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRCs), where government regulators and stakeholder representatives from around the world convene to negotiate and allocate which frequency ranges — called “bands” — should be divided for particular uses. 

Reflecting the rapid expansion of wireless services, governments and industry representatives spent more than four years engaging in intense competition and negotiations[1] that led to the WRC in 2015 (WRC-15). To catch up with the increasing demand for mobile broadband services, the ITU identified additional frequency bands for mobile broadband and instructed further research to find additional spectrum above 6 GHz for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT). The WRC-15 also allocated bands to provide satellite broadband connectivity for transportations of ships, trains, and aircrafts, and to use satellite communications for environmental monitoring. For certain issues, other international organizations will step in to pick up the ITU’s blueprint and complete global regulatory schemes.  In allocating spectrum for flight tracking of civilian airlines and specifying conditions for drone regulation, the ITU selected the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — an international organization that primarily deals with aviation safety — to further develop these aviation regulations.

The ITU’s work process can be characterized as a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. Higher bodies of the ITU — such as the WRC — decide which spectrum topics should be considered on the international level, upon consultation with governments and experts. Once decided, these topics are assigned to particular Study Groups (SGs) within the three sectors of the ITU, where government officials and stakeholder representatives develop research and provide expertise on technical details for implementation. The results of SGs are reported back to higher administrative bodies, and the ITU writes them into international treaties, such as the Radio Regulations. The information about SGs can be found here, here, and here

Regional and Bilateral Agreements 

Outside the ITU, multilateral trade and/or services agreements can also affect spectrum management, and in some cases, provide inputs for national spectrum management. While

these treaties do not directly allocate radio frequency bands, they set up rules that remove trade barriers and facilitate the flow of goods and cost-effective technologies in the telecommunications sector of the government parties. Within the World Trade Organization (WTO) system, governments have agreed upon a set of binding commitments to telecommunications. For instance, governments agreed that each country’s spectrum management is not per se a limitation on market access under certain circumstances[2], and that licensing criteria, regulatory independence, and the efficient allocation of resources are the areas where barriers should be removed to guarantee the access and use of spectrum. 

Regional and bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) also have impacts upon spectrum management. These FTAs may expand the WTO agreements on spectrum management, or introduce the WTO commitments into non-WTO countries. One recent example is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade agreement negotiated by 12 countries on the Pacific Rim, which stated that national laws regarding spectrum management are not per se inconsistent with the TPP’s cross-border trade liberalization rules or pro-investor rules as long as such national laws follow open, transparent and market-based approaches (Article 13.19. Allocation and Use of Scarce Resources). 

[1] See generally GSMA lobbies WRC for opening up sub-700 MHz band to mobile, available here; GSMA Commends Allocation of Additional Spectrum for Mobile Broadband at WRC-15, available here; Satellite Industry Fares Better Than Expected at WRC-15, available here; and WRC-15 Ends With Mixed Results on U.S. Goals, available here.

[2] Spectrum management itself is not a limitation on market access, as long as in accordance with relevant GATS (General Agreement on Trade and Services) provisions, including Article VI. See the Fourth Protocol of the GATS (General Agreement on Trade and Services), particularly Chairman’s Note on Market Access Limitations on Spectrum Availability, available here.