27 Nov 2023
by Laura Sear

WRC Series: What’s at stake at WRC-23 for the UK

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As our digital world grows, spectrum becomes scarcer, the stakes for identifying frequencies most efficiently have never been as high.

As was recently reiterated in the UK government’s Spectrum Statement, spectrum management is vital for the UK economy. Spectrum is a sovereign asset, but international coordination is important to ensure economies of scale and international cooperation. Decisions made at the upcoming conference will have major implications for the UK and its ambitious digital targets.

PolicyTracker is an impartial news and research firm that has been tracking all the most important agenda items at the conference since they were first announced in 2019. This article will briefly go through some of the major decisions that will affect the UK that are expected at the conference.

Mobile VS WiFi

The IMT identification of the upper 6 GHz band in Region 1 is going to be a key Agenda Item at the Conference. Yet, Ofcom and the CEPT have not made any clear position on the subject. The CEPT would tentatively ‘accept’ mobile services in the band if a set of strict conditions protecting incumbent users are being fulfilled. 

The UK has taken the lead in investigating possible coexistence between mobile services and wifi services, naming it a ‘hybrid solution’. Yet early sharing reports from both industries show that sharing this band will likely decrease the quality of services for both,  instead of a win-win situation European regulators were hoping for. 

The pressure to deliver high-quality mobile coverage and fast broadband has never been this high. In February 2022 the UK Government published the levelling up white paper that set a new target: for gigabit broadband to be available nationwide by 2030. Nationwide coverage means “at least 99%” of premises. At the same time, the UK committed to nationwide coverage of standalone 5G to all populated areas by 2030. 

Both industries claim that spectrum allocation is key to delivering these targets. WiFi needs the bandwidth so that investment in fibre doesn't go to waste and households have enough channels for 1000 Mbps broadband. The mobile industry says it needs extra capacity in mid-band spectrum to deliver SA 5G. Both sides are asking for a clear position on the upper 6 GHz and WRC-23 might just force the UK and the rest of Europe to bite the bullet.

The future of broadcast

Another high-profile issue being considered at WRC-23 concerns the future of the UHF band currently used by digital television. The WRC in 2015 (WRC-15) agreed to allocate parts of the 470-694 MHz band, on a co-primary basis, to mobile including identification for IMT in several areas around the world. Those discussions did not make changes to Region 1, but the agreement in 2015 was that it be addressed at the conference in 2023. 

The mobile industry sees low-band as vital for reaching coverage targets in rural areas. The broadcasting industry claims they need the full range to continue offering their service. 

According to the BBC millions of people in the UK and around the world rely on the UHF spectrum band to access TV and radio content via DTT (digital terrestrial television). “A change in the allocation of UHF spectrum at WRC-23 could have profoundly damaging consequences for both the UK’s public service broadcasting and free-to-air TV channels more broadly, impacting millions of households across the UK,” said the BBC.
The CEPT supports a secondary allocation to mobile service in the frequency band 470 – 694 MHz to be made at WRC-23, with a future agenda item for WRC-31 to consider a possible upgrade to a primary allocation. The proposal is not taken well by the broadcasting industry, claiming that a secondary allocation for mobile is leaving a door open for a primary allocation in the future. Both the EU and the UK Government have committed to ensuring the continuation of public broadcasting services until at least 2030, but the decision reached at WRC will likely impact what happens after this date.

Space and beyond

The GSOA says the number of operational LEO satellites increased from 1,700 in 2017 to 4,800 in 2022. Ofcom decided in November 2022 to expand the Ku band range to include an additional 250 MHz, citing increased demand for spectrum from the satellite industry. More spectrum is needed as LEO constellations continue to grow. 

While parts of this range are being used by satellites, the 7—24 GHz range is also being eyed by the mobile industry as it looks for future spectrum bands to satisfy the demands of 6G (IMT 2030). Some analysts have described it as the next major “spectrum battlefield”. It will certainly come up during discussions for Agenda item 10 on future identifications at WRC-27.

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Source: GSOA 

Direct-to-device (D2D) satellite connectivity might be the number one buzzword of the year for spectrum managers. Some satellite D2D providers such as Lynk, AST SpaceMobile and Starlink have opted to re-use existing terrestrial spectrum for their services. They do this by using the Article 4.4 exemption from the ITU radio regulations.

The ITU has publicly signalled that Article 4.4 should only be used for experimental reasons, and has been critical of any commercial services operating in the band. WRC-23 may see new restrictions placed on the use of 4.4 which could impact this fledgling new satellite vertical both in the UK and globally.

Another important issue for the UK relates to providing regulatory certainty for Space Weather Sensors at an international level. The UK has significant interests in space weather and the UK Meteorological Office operates one of three space weather prediction centres around the globe. 

Currently, space weather sensors operate under allocations for other services and have no recognition in the Radio Regulations (RR) for their spectrum use. A wide range of space weather sensors currently operate relatively free of harmful interference. However, the radio interference environment could change as a result of changes made to the Radio Regulations at WRCs (i.e., new allocations etc.) and this could put space weather spectrum use at risk. 

The outcomes from WRC-23 and prospectus for WRC-27 will be a key topic for the flagship UK SPF Future Spectrum Summit. Be part of the conversation and register here.

To find out more about our WRC 2023 Series, click here. If you would like to contribute, please reach out to [email protected].


Laura Sear

Senior Journalist, PolicyTracker