The World Radio Conference (WRC) is approaching and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is at the center of our attention. Once again, the future of how countries share a very essential resource – spectrum – is a core agenda topic for negotiations.
The ITU, a specialized United Nations agency with responsibilities regarding global spectrum management, holds the WRC conference every three to four years. In this multilateral negotiation, countries review and potentially change the Radio Regulations – the international treaty governing the use of the radio frequency spectrum, and the orbits of satellites used for communications. The conference will next convene this November in Geneva, Switzerland. It comes at a pivotal moment for wireless communications, because spectrum is getting more scarce and difficult to manage. Academic institutions, technology companies, and 193 member states will come together to consider solutions, and public interest groups should not be left behind.
At the conference, the WRC is posed to tackle mobile broadband and spectrum availability. The participant’s outlined their goals in the conference agenda. Agenda item 1.1 brings to the floor additional spectrum allocations for mobile services and additional frequency bands for International Mobile Telecommunications. Agenda item 7 calls for the consideration of rational, efficient, and economical radio frequency management. These two agenda items prioritize identifying additional lanes of spectrum, but do not tackle wide scale spectrum availability. For example, sharing is a strong alternative to reallocation because it allows for additional users on one frequency, and the agenda’s lack of emphasis on sharing exists despite the increasing global demand.
The Growth of Spectrum Use
Today, almost two-thirds of Americans own smartphones and as of May 2013, 63 percent of adult cellphone owners use their phones to go online. The trend holds true internationally with 3.6 billion mobile subscribers, or about half of the world, having a mobile subscription. This huge market is expanding, and more cellphone owners are demanding spectrum so they can go online. Smartphone adoption is reaching critical mass in developed markets, accounting for 60 percent of online connections. This number continues to grow, as it is projected that the developing world will add 2.9 billion more smartphone connections by 2020. This growing number of people that expect instant mobile interconnectivity and speed is increasing pressure on spectrum efficiency.
Why Does Spectrum Matter?
Spectrum is the conceptual tool used to organize how we think about the electromagnetic waves that make over-the-air people and machine communications possible. Unlike other resources that can be used up, spectrum is renewable but must be managed responsibly or the system will not work. This is because signals are lost or distorted when too many signals operate in the same frequency.
To guarantee clear signals, spectrum is distributed in pieces through licenses to a particular user – generally a country and company – or set aside as unlicensed spectrum for anyone to use, like for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Licensed spectrum is managed efficiently by repurposing it to high-value uses, increasing spectrum sharing, and improving receiver performances. However, very little spectrum survives to be licensed that is of decent communicative quality. And with the increasing demand of mobile data over Wi-Fi, this has become a problem for many countries focused on dealing with the digital divide. The entire globe is limited by available spectrum and it is important that countries work together to allow fair distribution and to avoid interference as this market pushes forward.
To sustain demand and innovation, we need more mobile spectrum in both urban and rural areas of the globe. Over 2.6 billion people use mobile phones to access the Internet and more than 2.9 billion are expected to join in the next five years. However, there are disagreements over how to make that level of connectivity possible. Spectrum management policy is then a fundamental issue if we want to ensure the next 1.5 billion users will be appropriately connected – a goal set by the Connect 2020, a project developed as part of the 2016-2019 ITU Strategic Plan.
What This Means for the WRC
A scarcity of spectrum will stunt the growth of technology innovation and advancement. For this reason, the WRC should be of paramount importance to those following spectrum policy because the future of communication technologies are held to its standards and policies. While it is too late for civil society to influence this upcoming conference – we are only four months out – the U.S. will soon start preparing for the 2019 WRC. And if we care about pushing for more spectrum, not just in the United States but globally, then our community must get involved in the next process of the WRC.