January 15, 2016 - 2:15 pm
By Michael O'Rielly | Commissioner

Now that the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) has concluded and the final report issued, I wanted to share my thoughts on this conference.  Although I was unable to attend the entire time, it was a privilege to join Ambassador Decker Anstrom and Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda from the State Department, FCC Chairman Wheeler, International Bureau Chief Mindel De La Torre and her staff in Geneva.  As part of the U.S. delegation, I enjoyed the meetings that I had with representatives from other delegations.  They were both informative and enlightening.

By way of background, the WRC is held every three to four years by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).  The last was held in 2012, and the next will be held in 2019.  During this conference, the participants review, and, if necessary, revise the Radio Regulations, which is the international treaty governing all member nations’ use of radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits.  They also determine issues for study in preparation for future WRCs. 

Having an international body, like the ITU, can allow for the global harmonization of spectrum use.  The benefits of global harmonization are many.  For instance, it reduces the cost of new equipment and devices because of the economies of scale achieved when technology can be marketed globally.  Additionally, it allows consumers to have the same experience with their devices whether they are at home or abroad.  Although global allocation is the main goal, spectrum may also be allocated by regions – such as Europe and Africa (Region 1), the Americas (Region 2) and Asia (Region 3) – or by country through footnotes added to the spectrum allocation chart.

The U.S. delegation, led by Ambassador Anstrom, worked vigorously to promote the U.S. position.  Based on their hard work, advocacy and many around-the-clock negotiating sessions, there was success on several objectives, such as harmonized spectrum for global flight tracking, public safety, and automotive radars, along with the study of potential bands for future Fixed Satellite Service allocation.  In these instances, the WRC seems to have operated as it should – countries coming together to determine global spectrum needs, finding solutions based on bona fide data and science, and acting collectively to resolve issues and different positions, as necessary.  Unfortunately, despite the delegation’s best efforts, these sound principles did not apply to the identification of International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum, which was the area of greatest interest to the FCC.

The Commission had two main goals heading into WRC-15.  The first was to obtain additional spectrum for mobile broadband, including a global allocation for the 600 MHz band and the C-band (i.e., the 3.4 to 3.7 GHz band).  While the U.S. was successful in getting this spectrum for use in this country, it faced immense opposition in obtaining a global allocation.  The second was to set the stage to globally harmonize spectrum to facilitate deployment of next generation, or 5G, networks.  To start this process, the U.S. was seeking sharing studies to determine whether future mobile services could co-exist in certain bands, including 28 GHz, which could pave the way for possible global allocation at the 2019 conference depending on the studies’ outcome.  In both of these instances, as in the U.S., there are broadcast, satellite and government incumbents providing services in these spectrum bands internationally. 

Unfortunately, this is where the WRC went awry.  For a number of reasons, other countries prevented a global 600 MHz allocation, even going so far as trying to block any discussion of the band at WRC-15.  They also barred the 28 GHz band from inclusion in the 5G feasibility studies.  It is incomprehensible that even doing studies should be a non-starter or off the table.  Science should dictate the efficient allocation of spectrum, not politics or international protectionism.

Although it is short-sighted for some countries to decide against technological innovation, what made matters even worse was a decision that individual countries could support a mobile allocation in the 600 MHz band through a footnote only upon the approval of neighboring countries.  Ultimately, this de facto veto power led to a domino effect of countries blocking other countries at the end of the conference.  Therefore, many governments that supported the U.S. position were forced to sit on the sidelines.  It is dumbfounding that one country could quash another’s ability to use spectrum within its own borders as it sees fit, even if they protect incumbents located in neighboring states. 

Regardless, the U.S. and certain other countries that already have mobile allocations for these frequencies will move forward notwithstanding, so it will not affect our future plans.  Therefore, the Commission will conduct a broadcast incentive auction in the near future (perhaps in a matter of months), and wireless providers will commence planning and deploying networks before the ITU may even consider a global allocation for this band further, which is not scheduled until the WRC in 2023.  This means that the rest of the world will trail far behind the trajectory of wireless communications progress.

Similarly, the ITU rejected studies of the 28 GHz band, despite millimeter wave research and testing that is already underway using these very frequencies in the U.S. and other like-minded countries.  Specifically, the Commission already has a proceeding regarding mobile use in 28 GHz, and has committed to considering an order this coming summer.  Therefore, those that are actually going to innovate and develop next-generation systems will proceed through the private sector standards setting bodies to determine what these technologies and networks will look like, all outside the purview of the ITU.  In sum, the ITU and countries that prevented even studying 28 GHz will have little to no voice in the development of these future technologies.  While this may not facilitate harmonization, the WRC-15 experience suggests that we simply can’t rely on a reasoned international process to result in a logical outcome. 

This leads me to contemplate the practical effect of what happened at WRC-15 and its impact on the ITU role going forward.  There is a real possibility that these practices undermined the value of future WRCs and increased the risk that the ITU will become a tool for governments and incumbent spectrum users to halt spectral efficiency and technological progress.  Global spectrum harmonization for future services will be difficult, if not impossible, or, at a minimum, be years behind innovation if such practices are allowed to occur.  At the same time, global technological leaders, such as the U.S., will continue to innovate outside and without input from the ITU and its many nation states.  This will, in turn, make the ITU and the WRC process less relevant.   

After this experience, I am left asking whether it is worth the country’s time and money to engage in this process and whether the ITU and WRC have a lasting future.  I will be an optimist and say that it can, but technologically advanced countries – and the U.S. in particular – need to have greater confidence in WRC and other international conferences, and also in the ITU in general.  If this means we should increase our leadership position, then let’s do so aggressively.  The ITU needs to be a place that fosters research and development based on sound science as opposed to a means to blocking future innovation.  And the only way this will happen is for countries on the cutting edge of technology to be able to be heard above those that are seeking to maintain the status quo, which are unfortunately the very ones who are currently in control of the ITU agenda.

In the end, WRC-15 had some successes but ultimately raised fundamental issues that need to be addressed.  I stand ready to assist in any way possible to make improvements a reality.  In the meantime, I will not hesitate to advance the United States’ technological positions to ensure future successes – with or without the ITU. 

Updated: 
January 15, 2016