Published March 2016

History of Spectrum Management

Radio waves have been used for communication for the last century, and during that time, spectrum management — deciding which radio frequencies are reserved for which types of wireless communications — has been regulated on the international level. The earliest international efforts to develop the cooperative use of radio spectrum were born out of the necessity for enhancing safety at sea, particularly during the war-ridden early 20th century. These efforts ended up being the force behind the first set of international agreements about allocating radio frequencies for ship-to-shore communications, and the birth of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). 

The radio spectrum is used for electric wireless communication. It is divided into frequencies measured in the unit known as a hertz (Hz).

From the beginning of wireless communications, the goal of spectrum management has been to provide efficient and equitable access to the radio waves for all countries and all people, out of intense competition for a share of the spectrum. Due to the propagation nature of radio waves, a particular band is optimal for a particular purpose. In order to avoid interference and promote safety and prosperity for all, spectrum has been allocated and managed via international and regional agreements, while respecting national sovereignty over the use of radio waves. (Visit our “Coordinating Bodies of Spectrum Management” page here for more information on international and regional coordinating bodies of spectrum management.)

Civil Society Participation Regarding International Spectrum Issues

Civil society participation in international spectrum issues has been a recent occurrence. Spectrum management has traditionally been considered a technical issue–an exclusive area for scientists, engineers, and technicians. For most of civil society, it was the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that drew their interest to the ITU and international spectrum issues. The ITU was selected by the UN as the main agency to implement the WSIS process.

Civil society groups that were focused on human rights on the Internet started to engage with the ITU and pursued civil society’s voices with regard to spectrum issues, particularly the use and expansion of unlicensed spectrum such as WiFi. These groups recognized spectrum management as a core issue to guarantee and foster access to Internet, media, and other core telecommunications. For instance, in preparations for the ITU’s highest level meeting, the Plenipotentiary Conference 2014 (PP-14), civil society sent a series of commentaries to the ITU on various topics including spectrum. 

Civil society’s engagement with the ITU has not always been positive. One symbolic example is the WCITLeaks, where civil society posted the leaked documents from government representatives during the preparatory process of the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), calling for truly transparent multistakeholder participation. Since the ITU has worked more closely with policymakers and technical and industry representatives than civil society, it took some time for the ITU to develop a multistakeholder participatory process and formalize the contributions of civil society and academia. The ITU gradually developed a multistakeholder process, and in 2014, the ITU encouraged the government delegations “to include civil society in their delegations at PP-14 […] to ensure that discussions about the future of the [ITU] and ICT sector more generally remain as inclusive and open as possible, and that outcomes are beneficial for all stakeholders.” However, it remains to be seen whether the ITU has provided an open and participatory channels to civil society since 2014.

How Civil Society Can Engage

There are no common methods of civil society participation in international fora that affect spectrum issues. Each international organization or body has its own participation methods. As for the ITU, civil society as corporate entities or academic institutions may become the ITU’s Sector Members, Associates, or contribute through Academia.

In addition to Public Knowledge’s works on spectrum reform in the US, potential spectrum issues for civil society participation are:

  1. Unlicensed Spectrum

Unlicensed spectrum refers to the radio-frequency spectrum that is exempt from the national government’s licensing scheme. Since a particular licensee does not exclusively possess it, unlicensed spectrum is open to all and is available for use by all. Unlicensed spectrum, particularly WiFi, is a key source of innovation, and civil society has promoted the need for unlicensed spectrum on the domestic and international levels.

  1. Efficient Spectrum Management in Developing Countries

Developing countries often lack the technical expertise and policy experience of developed countries, and the spectrum policy of developing countries may be inefficient in realizing economic growth and delivering broadband to people. Such a digital divide issue has been raised within international authorities, including the ITU, in order to provide efficient and equitable access to spectrum for all countries. Civil society has also worked directly with developing countries to understand optimal spectrum management in given countries.

  1. Transparent and Non-Discriminatory Spectrum Management

Civil society has worked to achieve, at least, two types of transparency in spectrum management. The first one deals with spectrum auctions, by which additional frequency bands are allocated to commercial entities. Since the licensee enjoy the exclusive use of the spectrum bands, civil society around the world has pushed for transparent and non-discriminatory spectrum auctions for fair and market-efficient use of spectrum. The second type of transparency means an open process for government agencies in designing and implementing spectrum policy. Recently in the U.S., government agencies that regulate national spectrum policy have been requested to work with various stakeholders in deciding which additional bands to release and when to do so or to provide fact-based and transparent dispute resolution procedure regarding spectrum interference.

Laying out technical specifications of spectrum bands for particular communicative purposes has long-lasting impacts upon wireless communications between humans or device-to-device communications. Getting involved with spectrum management is raising civil society’s voice from the design phase of a given telecommunications technology to ensure that the technology is not just commercially efficient but also inclusive, equitable, and nondiscriminatory.