In November 2023, delegates from around the world will gather in Dubai for a month-long conference to review and revise an international treaty governing international radiofrequency spectrum allocations. The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), as it is known, is held every four years by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an international organization within the United Nations which coordinates the global use of radio spectrum and assigns satellite orbits.

While it sounds like an obscure international conference, the actions taken at the WRC have very real-world impacts on the development of wireless telecommunications services in the U.S. and our industry’s standing in the world. Delegates from more than 193 ITU member states and over 900 companies will debate the use, repurposing, and sharing of radiofrequency spectrum to further national and commercial goals. These discussions serve to harmonize spectrum use between countries and regions of the world, reduce the potential for harmful interference, and enable interoperability and the potential for international roaming. It is no overstatement to say that participation and successful outcomes at the WRC can shape the future of our wireless ecosystem to determine how our technologies, companies, and investments fit into the global economy.

U.S. involvement and leadership at the WRC, and at the ITU itself, are vital to advancing U.S. interests and democratic ideals. This past year, Doreen Bogdan-Martin from the United States won a historic election to become the Secretary-General of the ITU—its first female leader since its establishment over 158 years ago. Ms. Bogdan-Martin received an overwhelming majority of votes, prevailing over candidates from other nations, including Russia. With this landmark election, the United States takes the helm of the ITU for the first time since 1965 after eight years under the leadership of China’s representative. This election comes at a time of increased international tension, and American leadership on the international stage will help to ensure that international telecommunication regulations remain fundamentally fair for all countries.

So now that we’ve set the stage, it is worth highlighting a few issues which will drive discussions at the WRC. Multiple agenda items consider expanding and harmonizing frequencies available for international mobile telecommunications networks (5G and 6G) in different regions of the world. Selecting these allocations will be critical to the expansion of our networks because the United States has among the most congested spectrum in the world thanks to lots of legacy uses (particularly for the Department of Defense, and space science, and local public safety users). That means we don’t have the same flexibility that other countries have to put a given slice of spectrum to use for mobile broadband, so getting to the right designations is particularly important. The WRC will also consider the use of certain frequencies for high-altitude broadband base stations which typically operate in the stratosphere (essentially cell towers in the sky). On the satellite side, WRC-2023 will address various issues, ranging from expanding frequencies available for earth stations in motion (i.e., aircraft, ships, and vehicles) to the use of fixed-satellite service networks to pilot unmanned aircraft in international airspace. The decisions that come out of the WRC on each of these issues will play an important role in the continued development of wireless telecommunications services that the U.S. public relies on and drive our role in the global marketplace.

Notably, WRC-2023 will also set the agenda for the next WRC in 2027, including deciding which radio-frequency bands will be studied for potential use in 6G networks. With 6G widely expected to enhance network coverage and capacity, decisions on which frequencies will be allocated for that purpose will have lasting impacts on how 6G networks are shaped and deployed. With satellite direct-to-phone plans being announced by a number of U.S. satellite and mobile companies, the WRC will likely witness heated discussions over the scope of a direct-to-device mobile satellite study for WRC-2027.

As WRC-2023 approaches, countries, including the United States, will proceed to finalize their positions on these and other issues and will seek to build international support to ensure successful outcomes. For those interested in the future of wireless telecommunications, this conference will be one to watch.

Tricia Paoletta and Bryan Tramont serve as the Chair and Vice Chair respectively of the federal advisory council to the FCC on preparations for WRC-23.

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