Brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand.” This is what Arthur C. Clark predicted in 1964 when he looked into the future to the year 2000. 3-D medical imaging allowing surgeons to supervise hospital operations on the other side of the world, holographic projections, high-speed financial trading, driverless cars and the “Internet of things” are all technologies which will be permitted by 5G technology.
However, 5G technology demands require access to large amounts of spectrum and an agreement at International Telecommunication Union (ITU) level in order to align frequency bands to host such services. Depending on how this access is managed, it may adversely affect the existing users of spectrum — including use by satellite operators.
Spectrum Above 6GHz
National regulators, such as Ofcom in the U.K., are therefore seeking to gather information on the use of spectrum above 6 GHz for 5G mobile services, taking into account other existing and potential uses of this spectrum, including satellite operators. 5G is expected to benefit from the use of spectrum at higher frequencies (above 6GHz) due to the greater bandwidth that may be available, which could support significantly higher speeds. Technological innovations are also now beginning to enable use of such higher frequencies.
Regulators are, however, unclear as to what specific bands above 6GHz might be most suitable for introducing 5GHz mobile services — also considering other users of the spectrum. There has already been much support for a new agenda item for the ITU WRC-19 on bands above 6GHz, in an effort to facilitate the introduction of 5G systems in the early 2020s. A future agenda item looking at all bands above 6GHz, however, will be too broad for the ITU-R study groups and a future WRC to manage effectively. Regulators are therefore seeking to narrow down the range of bands to be considered for 5G, which will include the extent to which sharing of spectrum will be possible.
Existing Uses of Spectrum Above 6GHz
Spectrum above 6GHz is already being used for various services, including Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) within the bands 27.0 - 31.0 GHz and 17.3 - 21.2 GHz (Ka-band). These bands will remain important for the future growth of the satellite industry. Satellite operators are also looking to use certain bands above 30/31GHz.
“The industry is looking into the necessity to find a win-win approach to the 5G spectrum needs,” said Daniela Genta, VP of radio regulatory affairs and policy at Airbus Defence and Space. “Regulations are to enable continued and future growth for the existing users in the frequency bands above 6 GHz together with an efficient spectrum allocation for mobile broadband services (IMT 2020). Looking at higher frequency bands, above 31GHz for example, could become a viable solution for all parties.”
Technology solutions for 5G mobile services are being developed in various frequency bands above 31GHz — keeping spectrum below 31GHz clear for uses such as satellite services. Samsung, for example, have tested 5G systems at around 39 GHz and RLAN systems at around 61GHz.
There are growing requests from the satellite community that regulators should not pursue action at ITU level to promote the allocation of the Ka-band for the implementation of 5G systems. Regulators, regional bodies and the ITU could instead consider bands above 31.0 GHz for 5G use. The satellite community are therefore encouraged to respond to the recent Call for Input on this subject issued by Ofcom, the U.K. regulator, and further “notice of inquiries” published by the FCC and similar requests from other regulators.
As one satellite operator recently stated to me, this is the “next big issue.” It is important that the satellite community responds to calls for information to ensure sustainable access to, for example, Ka-band spectrum to protect the significant investment in satellite networks and the benefits they bring which are unmatched by other technology. But it is also vital that sufficient spectrum is allocated for use by the ground breaking 5G technologies to be developed and commercialized. VS
Joanne Wheeler is a partner at international law firm Bird & Bird.