The 2015 World Radicommunication Conference: A Change in Dynamics

A look at what happened at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) with regard to the study of future bands for 5G services, most notably, the 28 GHz band.

What happened at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) with regard to the study of future bands for 5G services, most notably, the 28 GHz band, has taken center stage in the United States. This issue has arisen following a speech by FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler to the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) at their annual dinner where he chastised the satellite industry for stopping the study of the 28 GHz band for 5G services — something Chairman Wheeler termed “a national priority.” While Chairman Wheeler’s view of the power of the satellite industry on a global basis is flattering, it does not reflect what really happened at the 2015 WRC.

The 28 GHz band is a critical band for the satellite industry to provide to consumers across the globe satellite broadband services. Today the satellite industry supports millions of customers, and that number grows each day. While Chairman Wheeler is correct that the satellite industry had serious concerns about the study of the 28 GHz band for use by 5G, these concerns were only a partial explanation for why the United States and its allies failed to have this band included for study for consideration at WRC 2019. Study items at WRCs, while subject to industry advocacy, are ultimately decided solely by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Member States; they alone have the power to vote and make decisions. Accordingly, while the satellite industry may have advocated to governments the importance of protecting the 28 GHz band for satellite, it was the 100-plus Member States participating at WRC-15 who must have found these concerns compelling. Some of these Member States, such as the countries that make up the European Conference on Posts and Telecommunications, came into the WRC with very clear positions that, because of important satellite uses of the 28 GHz band, they would not support the study of this band for 5G services.

Second, what was most interesting at this conference was the attitude of many administrations to putting at risk the ability of some tried-and-true technologies to be disrupted by newer technologies whose benefits might not be available to them in the near term. This was a concern expressed by many Member States that today rely on satellite broadband services.

What is driving this dynamic in an organization that previously was anxious to consider and study new technologies such as 5G? First and foremost, it appears that the developing world and, to some extent, even the developed world is expressing skepticism of these new technology advocates to deliver. For instance, although advanced countries like the United States are focused on 5G services, many other countries are still trying to grapple with having adequate 2G services. In addition, there seems to be recognition of the importance of allowing other types of technologies, such as satellite, to continue to evolve and serve customers even if that might mean the delay of new technologies.

Now does this changing dynamic mean that in the future the ITU will become less important in the development of new technologies? Or is this just a pause in a trend that should have been noticed at more recent WRCs? It is likely both. First, for technologies like 5G, that do not need an allocation change at WRC, it may be that those advocates move to the standards forums to advance their goals. For changes, however, that require alterations to the table of allocations, it is clear that the ITU will continue to be a very important forum and one that countries will continue to have to actively work in. What is most interesting about WRC-15 is that the hesitation to support new technologies really focused on the harmonization issues — not the allocation issues. And for this reason, it might be best for those issues to return to the standard bodies where they are best addressed and leave the ITU to focus on issues of allocations — where its jurisdiction is clearest. VS

The views reflected in this article are those of Ms. Manner and do not necessarily reflect the views of EchoStar, Georgetown Law Center or SIA.

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