For four weeks last quarter, the world gathered to negotiate modifications to the Radio Regulations, an international treaty managed by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Going into the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23), the U.S. stated its goals were to expand connectivity and innovation, unlock the burgeoning space economy, and protect important federal missions. This year’s WRC Agenda was already heavy with a number of satellite issues, and the Agenda for WRC-27, negotiated over the month-long conference, reflects continued interest in satellite, particularly for the developing field of direct-to-phone satellite services, like those popularized by Apple with its satellite emergency texting, or promised by Starlink and T-Mobile, among others.

Reflecting the increasing demand for broadband connectivity everywhere, even on planes and ships, WRC-23 agreed on new spectrum allocations for “earth stations in motion” with geostationary (GSO) and non-geostationary satellite systems (NGSOs). The Conference produced more allocations for inter-satellite links, to help all systems move their traffic more efficiently, and updated regulatory procedures to support increased deployment of large NGSO constellations, a technology in which the U.S. leads the world. Unlike the first generation of satellites, NGSOs do not stay in a fixed location far above the earth. In addition, being closer to the earth than GSOs, and therefore having lower latency, NGSOs can deliver connectivity in the most remote areas with broadband speeds. 

Decisions at the WRC were not limited to commercial systems. The Conference agreed on measures related to space science that will help better monitor climate and its impacts through new spectrum allocations and regulatory provisions enabling earth exploration satellite services to explore polar ice caps and allow greater understanding of space weather. 

Not all the gains were up in the sky. Down on the ground, the cellular industry made important strides toward increasing global harmonization in the core 5G band, 3.3 – 3.8 GHz. Particularly in our own Americas region (Region 2), the cellular industry will have 500 MHz of contiguous spectrum. This should provide impetus for the Biden Administration to double down on studies and plans to expedite commercial broadband’s access to the lower 3 GHz, particularly the 3.3 – 3.45 GHz band, which has a long-open proceeding at the FCC.

The 6 GHz band was also a source of intense lobbying at WRC-23. Unlike the 3 GHz band, the 6 GHz band has no radar—so fewer government users. The 700 MHz in the range under study the last cycle has the bandwidth to support next-generation broadband, both 6G cellular (optimized at 200 MHz, 400 MHz, or even 500 MHz-sized channels) and Wi-Fi-7 (optimized at 320 MHz channels). Accordingly, the band was an attractive candidate to both licensed and unlicensed interests. Ultimately, a Solomonic result ensued, with 6425-7125 MHz being identified in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (Region 1) for “IMT” (in practice, licensed cellular), but with a recognition that the band was also available for Wi-Fi, known at the ITU by the umbrella term RLAN (radiocommunication local area networks). While European countries did not join their Region 1 counterparts in the various country footnotes identifying bands within the 3 GHz range for IMT, they supported the 6 GHz band for IMT. In Asia (Region 3), the upper 100 MHz of the band (7025-7125 MHz) was identified for IMT. Despite a strong push by China, countered by India, 6425-7025 MHz was only identified in several smaller Asian countries. In the Americas, Mexico and Brazil identified 6425-7125 MHz for IMT, reflecting heavy lobbying by China. But as in the Region 1 and Region 3 identifications, their footnote recognizes the band is also for the use by RLANs.  

Reflecting the enduring hope by ITU members in high-altitude stations to extend connectivity, WRC-23 made more mid-band spectrum available for these stations (such as un-crewed dirigibles or fixed-wing solar-powered aircraft). Driven by Softbank of Japan, the WRC-23 made spectrum available in several bands for high-altitude stations to operate as mobile broadband base stations.

The conference also reached consensus on the agenda for the next WRC, which will be held in 2027. Studies over the next four years will cover a range of new technologies and services, including identifying new spectrum for 5G and future 6G communications, and reviewing regulations for aeronautical communications. The WRC-27 Agenda has not one, but three different agenda items relating to Mobile Satellite Service, such as to a moving terminal like a mobile phone. The U.S. was also keen to push for previously-blocked studies at the ITU to modernize the methods for calculating permissible aggregate interference from new NGSO systems like Starlink, OneWeb, and Amazon’s soon-to-be Kuiper. Due to innovation in such NGSOs, the U.S. pushed for and achieved a commitment to study towards modernizing protection of incumbent GSOs to reflect the new art of the possible. The U.S. also succeeded in getting a new study item on the WRC-27 Agenda for communications on the moon, and among and between satellites and other vehicles orbiting the moon and the lunar surface.

The next conference will also consider actions to further promote scientific research into space weather and climate change mitigation.

Patricia Paoletta is a partner at HWG LLP, served as the Chair of the FCC’s FACA on WRC-23, and attended the Conference. The description above are the views of her own and do not reflect the position of any of HWG’s clients.

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