Best of 2020: Australia and the WRC — seeking spectrum harmony

By Jonathan Nally
Wednesday, 23 December, 2020

Best of 2020: Australia and the WRC — seeking spectrum harmony

Australia’s delegation to the WRC-19 focused on advancing the nation’s legitimate interests in spectrum policy and technology matters.

Every three or four years, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) holds the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), where changes to the Radio Regulations are considered. The Radio Regulations is the global treaty governing the use of RF spectrum and satellite orbits.

WRC-19 was held from 28 October to 22 November 2019 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. More than 3000 state and industry delegates from 163 countries and 424 representatives of 130 organisations participated. Australia sent a delegation of 31 government and industry representatives, led by the then Department of Communications and the Arts.

Historically, Australian engagement in WRCs had been led by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) as the WRC was considered to be a technical forum. While the WRC continues to be a technical forum, agendas are increasingly also covering policy matters. So in 2017, the federal government transferred responsibility for Australian engagement in the WRC to the Department, recognising that departments of state are better placed to respond to policy matters. The Department and ACMA still work closely together in preparing for WRCs, with the ACMA continuing to lead on technical matters.

The WRC-19 agenda spanned the mobile phone, satellite, aeronautical, maritime, scientific, defence and transport sectors. Agenda items typically consider whether particular RF spectrum can be shared without causing harmful interference. Each WRC also sets the agenda for the next WRC. The global telecommunications industry is closely engaged in the meeting, including mobile and satellite companies.

The head of Australia’s delegation to WRC-19 was departmental Assistant Secretary Cathy Rainsford.

“Australian radiocommunication experts from government and industry engage in international study groups of the ITU throughout the 3- to 4-year World Radiocommunication Conference cycle,” Rainsford said. “Experts also meet domestically to contribute to studies and prepare to represent Australia at international and Asia–Pacific preparatory meetings.”

Cathy Rainsford shaking hands with a man from the ITU, and handing over paperwork

Head of the Australian WRC Delegation, Cathy Rainsford, submitting her credentials at the start of the WRC.

Preparatory work

The Australian Preparatory Group for WRC-19 comprised about 50 experts and provided advice to government to inform decisions on Australia’s positions on each agenda item. The group included representatives from:

  • the mobile industry (AMTA, Telstra and Optus)
  • the satellite industry (NBN Co, Optus, Myriota, Intelsat, Inmarsat, Globalstar, Pivotel, Iridium, Boeing, Airbus, Omnispace, O3b, Telesat, Viasat)
  • the broadcasting industry (Free TV, Commercial Radio Australia, Prime, SBS)
  • the amateur radio community
  • the Communications Alliance
  • government agencies that rely on spectrum (Department of Defence, Airservices Australia, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Australian Space Agency, Bureau of Meteorology and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation).

Membership of the Preparatory Group can change over time, with membership open to any interested party who agrees to guidelines for participation.

“Over the four-year preparatory period before WRC-19, Australian delegates participated in 41 ITU Radiocommunication Sector meetings,” Rainsford said.

“These meetings review studies into issues on the WRC agenda to examine whether interference is likely to occur between radiocommunication services, and what technical and regulatory measures could be adopted to prevent or minimise harmful interference.

Based on the results of studies, the ITU Radiocommunication Sector develops a technical report (the Conference Preparatory Meeting report) providing options for possible adoption at WRC.

There was regional preparatory work, too, conducted by the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT), the regional intergovernmental telecommunication organisation. The APT’s member countries include Australia, China, India, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Pacific and South-East Asian countries. A series of five meetings preceding the WRC enabled APT member states to negotiate views for the APT region to present at international meetings.

Australia’s WRC aims

According to Rainsford, the “overarching objective for Australia at WRC-19 was to ensure that international arrangements through the Radio Regulations treaty continue to be consistent with the rational and efficient use of Australia’s sovereign assets in the radio frequency spectrum”.

Other Australian objectives were to:

1. Establish new globally or regionally harmonised radiofrequency spectrum allocations, identifications and coordination arrangements (including technical or operational requirements) that:

  • are technically feasible (ie, will not cause unacceptable interference to existing radiocommunication users, particularly safety and emergency services);
  • respond appropriately to changing technology and industry practice;
  • promote regulatory certainty to enable investment;
  • promote economies of scale to reduce equipment costs;
  • promote global interoperability of new and evolving technologies and services across all sectors, including to support Australia’s international capabilities;
  • align with Australia’s domestic spectrum policies and priorities.

2. Ensure continued protections for, and strengthening of international cooperation on, scientific uses of the spectrum including radioastronomy, meteorology, earth exploration and space weather monitoring.

3. Ensure continued protections for, and strengthening of international cooperation on, navigation and safety services, including aeronautical and maritime radiocommunications.

4. Strengthen international cooperation on shared global radiofrequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources.

“Australia’s primary interests in the WRC-19 agenda were the evolution of 5G mobile broadband, connectivity on planes and ships, deployment of large satellite constellations, and scientific and transport safety uses of spectrum,” Rainsford said.

People walking past a large, vertical WRC sign in the foyer of the conference centre

Spectrum for 5G

The conference agreed new global identification of spectrum for future use by 5G mobile broadband in the 24.25–27.5 GHz, 37–43.5 GHz and 66–71 GHz bands. Other bands between 45.5 and 48.2 GHz were also identified for mobile broadband use in some countries.

These identifications will provide large contiguous blocks of spectrum for deployment of 5G, promote economies of scale in 5G equipment development and manufacture, and enable service interoperability for international roaming.

Underpinning the agreement to identify spectrum for 5G were regulatory limits to protect meteorological satellite sensors from mobile broadband operating in the 24.25–27.5 GHz band. Going into WRC-19, there was consensus that protection was required, but significant contention on the level of protection.

The compromise outcome provides a staged approach. Between now and 2027, temporary interference limits will be applied to mobile broadband, becoming more stringent in 2027 when 5G rollouts reach maturity.

People seated along a row of desks at the conference

Large satellite constellations

The need to address spectrum ‘warehousing’ in light of filings for new very large satellite constellations was addressed at WRC-19 by a new regulatory framework for the staged deployment of these constellations over a seven-year period.

The new rules provide a set of milestones for deployment to avoid large non-geostationary (NGSO) satellite systems (some up to 75,000 orbital slots) being filed with the ITU but never deployed, tying up these scarce resources indefinitely.

The outcome reflects Australia’s objectives and should promote a competitive global NGSO satellite industry and provide broadband around the world.

Broadband on aircraft and ships

WRC-19 agreed international conditions for operation of ‘Earth stations in motion’ (ESIM) in the frequency bands 17 GHz and 28 GHz. ESIM commonly provide satellite Wi-Fi on aircraft and cruise ships.

The outcome includes regulatory limits to protect satellite and terrestrial radiocommunication systems, including 5G mobile broadband networks in 28 GHz being deployed in Korea, Japan and the US.

It is expected that the aviation and maritime industries will benefit from expanded service provision by satellite networks.

Transport safety communications

Australia successfully negotiated a result that supported ongoing studies on rail spectrum but avoided restrictions on any particular bands in the Radio Regulations. This outcome supports Australia’s rail industry to be able to continue using the specialised rail hardware that operates within current national mobile allocations.

Australia successfully opposed international regulation for Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS). Any regulation specifying particular technologies or frequencies would restrict fast-evolving development of ITS technologies that connect vehicles, improve traffic management and assist safe driving.

The WRC outcome also aligns with the class licensing arrangements put in place by ACMA in the 5850–5925 MHz band in January 2018.

A view from the back of the huge WRC conference hall, with hundreds of people in seats and the dias at the far end

Improved maritime safety

WRC-19 successfully paved the way for addition of the Iridium satellite system to the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) as a second service provider, opening a monopoly previously held by Inmarsat. Iridium’s system will expand GMDSS capacity and coverage, especially in polar regions.

Regulatory changes took into account radioastronomy and aeronautical services operating in frequency bands adjacent to the Iridium system.

Gender declaration

Early in the conference, agreement coalesced to develop a declaration Promoting Gender Equality, Equity and Parity in the ITU Radiocommunication Sector. At WRC-19, only 18% of participants were women — an increase of just 1% from WRC-15.

The declaration is a statement that ITU member states recognise that more is needed to facilitate the full participation of women in this space.

Australia’s interests

While Australia doesn’t have any particularly special domestic requirements that differ greatly from those of other countries, there are aspects for which we need to lobby at WRCs.

“International spectrum allocations can affect the availability and cost of communications equipment for Australian consumers and industry; for example, mobile phones and base station equipment. Australian WRC positioning takes this into account and generally supports harmonisation where economies of scale would lower costs for Australian consumers and industry,” Rainsford said.

“Australia is lucky to enjoy a relatively low-interference environment, as we are an island nation with few neighbours close by. Our geography also means we rely on both terrestrial and satellite technology for communications, whereas some administrations are more reliant on one or the other,” she added.

“A key goal is to avoid international regulations that would constrain Australia’s ability to manage spectrum domestically, including to take advantage of our geographic isolation.

“We also support international cooperation as the best way to safeguard and improve important aeronautical and maritime communications, and to ensure scientific uses of spectrum can continue to supply important information (eg, meteorological sensor data) to Australia.”

Cathy Rainsford and other officials sitting and standing at a desk, signing a document

Cathy Rainsford and members of the Australian Delegation to WRC-19, signing the final acts at the conclusion of the conference.

Spectrum squeeze

Spectrum and satellite orbits are scarce resources, naturally limited in availability, and there is inevitable competition among major manufacturers and technologies vying for access to spectrum.

“With the rise of mobile phones over the last three decades, more and more spectrum has been sought to underpin high-speed mobile broadband and communications. At the same time, consumers and industry are demanding connectivity everywhere, which drives demand for spectrum from the satellite industry,” Rainsford said.

“The international radiocommunication community continues to recognise that cooperation and compromise delivers better outcomes (more spectrum and less interference) for everyone,” she added.

“Australia encourages cooperation and compromise on the international radiocommunications stage. While demand is increasing, improvements in technology mean that spectrum can be used more efficiently, and makes viable the use of spectrum at higher frequencies.”

What are some of the next big challenges for international spectrum regulation?

“Australia will continue to work towards international arrangements that provide certainty for interference management and flexibility to allocate spectrum efficiently, to its highest value use,” Rainsford said.

“Technologies using wireless connectivity, and spectrum that underpins it, continue to evolve. Spectrum needs to be managed for both new entrants and existing users.

“Increasing the efficiency of spectrum use, including through spectrum sharing, is likely to require continued international cooperation.”

Looking ahead to WRC-23

The conference agreed an agenda for the next WRC in 2023, comprising 19 agenda items and two areas for study.

One band, 7025–7125 MHz, will be considered for potential global identification for mobile broadband. Significant spectrum will be considered for identification for mobile broadband in Region 2 (Americas), including 3300–3400 MHz, 3600–3800 MHz and 10–10.5 GHz, while 6425–7025 MHz will be considered for mobile broadband identification for Region 1 (Europe, Africa and post-Soviet states).

The satellite industry is seeking regulatory arrangements for operation of ESIM with non-geostationary-orbit satellite constellations in several bands between 17 and 30 GHz, and for operation of ESIM with geostationary-orbit satellites using 12.75–13.25 GHz.

The scientific community will explore use of extremely high frequencies to support Earth exploration satellite services in 231.5–252 GHz, and an upgrade of the status of the space research service in 14.8–15.35 GHz.

Other agenda items include several potential adjustments for satellite, aeronautical and radio navigation spectrum.

Conference images courtesy ITU; photographers D. Woldu, M. Mousa and H. Essawy.

This article was first published on 19 February 2020

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