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World Radiocommunication Conference Sets New Guidelines

September 2003
By Ken Keane

Technology advances are balanced against national, institutional needs.

Three important decisions reached at the recent World Radiocommunication Conference may hold substantial ramifications for the United States and the global telecommunications community as a whole. Many of the issues discussed at the conference are illustrative of the realities affecting both commercial and U.S. Defense Department spectrum usage today.

These conferences are of major and increasing importance for the United States. Decisions reached at them can foster new technologies or retard them, adversely affect U.S. defense interests or leave them unconstrained, and open new markets for U.S. goods and services or leave them closed.

The most recent World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC)—the “Olympics of spectrum,” as some have called it—took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from June 9, 2003, through July 4. More than 140 nations with approximately 2,300 delegates attended. Forty-eight items were on the agenda; thousands of proposals were offered; more than 900 meetings were held; and millions of pages of text were generated.

WRCs are organized by, and held under the auspices of, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is based in Geneva. WRC deliberations frequently are very technical. Often, however, technical arguments mask other agendas that involve national pride or the quest for economic advantage.

The U.S. agenda for the conference sought to promote new technologies while protecting existing spectrum allocations and services, including ones important to national security. While simple in concept, actual implementation was an enormous challenge given the scope of the agenda. The United States offered numerous proposals at the conference. Heading the list was the expansion of spectrum for radio local area networks (RLAN), also known as wireless fidelity Internet access (Wi-Fi) devices, in the 5-gigahertz band.

Before the United States submits a proposal to a WRC, the proposal undergoes an intensive domestic review process designed to reconcile differences between and among conflicting U.S. interests. In the case of Wi-Fi, this process pitted important players in the U.S. computer industry—such as Cisco, Microsoft and Intel—against the Defense Department and other government interests with important stakes in the 5-gigahertz band. This band is used for military radar, among other things.

A central issue involved the aggregate effects on Defense Department radars from the operation of a multitude of Wi-Fi devices. It was only after many months of wrangling that the computer interests and Defense Department were able to reach an agreement that paved the way for a U.S. proposal to the conference. Under the terms of the ultimate resolution reached at the conference, 455 megahertz of spectrum was designated in the 5-gigahertz band for RLAN devices with restrictions to protect radars and other services.

A contentious Wi-Fi issue at the WRC concerned restrictions on outdoor use in the 5250- to 5350-megahertz band. European representatives sought to limit RLAN devices to indoor use to protect other sensitive services such as earth exploration satellites. The United States resisted such a restriction as unnecessary.

In the end, both sides achieved some of what they wanted. The WRC adopted a resolution that allows outdoor use but, in another section, calls upon administrations to adopt measures encouraging primarily indoor use. This result provides enough flexibility for continued development of Wi-Fi markets and technologies.

In addition, as part of the compromise, the United States was able to secure an upgrade of the secondary radar allocation at 5350 to 5650 megahertz to primary status, and it attained a new allocation for earth exploration and space sciences.

Aeronautical mobile satellite service represented another important U.S. thrust. This proposal originated with Boeing, which conceived of the possibility of providing Internet access services to airline passengers, especially those on long-haul flights, using spectrum in the 14.0- to 14.5-gigahertz range. In particular, the U.S. proposal contemplated a secondary allocation designed to ensure protection for incumbent services in this range. A secondary allocation is one that, under the ITU’s radio regulations, must not cause interference to systems operating in accordance with primary allocations and must accept interference from such systems.

A number of other administrations, chiefly from Arab Group nations and Iran, delayed resolution of this issue for strategic purposes to advance their own agendas. Moreover, a number of nations in Europe, Asia and Africa signed on to so-called country footnotes imposing limits on the signal level produced over their territories.

In the end, however, the item was approved. While Boeing introduced the concept, which it calls by the trade name Connexion, a WRC spectrum allocation is by nature open to competing providers as long as those providers operate in accordance with the radio regulations. Its approval could lead to a new and attractive service for air travelers.

In addition to the 5-gigahertz radar issue, other radar issues appeared on the conference agenda. Particularly noteworthy from the Defense Department perspective is one that affected the 13.75- to 14.0-gigahertz band.

This band has been allocated for fixed satellite service uplinks but with a restriction on the size of the earth stations permitted to operate in the band. Specifically, the radio regulations only permitted earth stations with a diameter of at least 4.5 meters. This effectively limited the earth stations in question to a relatively few gateway stations. This restriction was imposed to protect co-primary radar systems, particularly systems used by the U.S. Navy for defensive purposes.

U.S. and foreign satellite interests proposed a relaxation of the radio regulations to allow use of earth stations with diameters as small as 1.2 meters. Dishes like these are suitable for widespread small-business use such as at gas stations and convenience stores. Because the smaller dishes are more attractive for end users, there was a concern that this would lead to their proliferation—which was the very purpose of the industry proposal. However, proliferation would raise the aggregate signal level emitted by these dishes to the point where they could interfere with the radars. This in turn would lead to several unsatisfactory conditions that would degrade the radar’s ability to function fully as intended.

Satellite interests like PanAmSat,  Netherlands-based New Skies and others pushed hard for relaxation of the dish-size rule. A number of administrations, particularly from the Arab Group, joined them.

On this issue, the U.S. position going into the conference was “no change” to the regulations. However, a compromise solution gained favor and ultimately was adopted by the conference after difficult negotiations. Under the compromise, the dish-size rule will be relaxed in return for the adoption of restrictions on the total power that such an earth station may emit at the low water mark for a given percentage of time. The low water mark is to be that officially recognized by the coastal state. The values ultimately agreed upon were -115 decibel watts per square meter over a 10-megahertz bandwidth not to be exceeded more than one percent of the time. Because certain small and island nations would find compliance with these limits extremely difficult if not impossible to meet, a separate resolution was adopted spelling out criteria for the negotiation of bilateral agreements between these nations and those operating the radars. It is contemplated that such agreements would allow for relaxed power-level rules.

As wireless technology continues to improve, the commercial sector will continue to press for access to more of the natural resource—the radio spectrum. Because much of the spectrum in the United States is allocated for defense purposes such as radars, and much of that spectrum is in turn prime real estate, the Defense Department will continue to find itself coping with new commercial proposals. While those proposals may not always entail eviction of Defense Department users—as was the case domestically with the third-generation cellular controversy and the 1.7-gigahertz band—proposals to share spectrum, as with the 5- and 13.75- to 14-gigahertz bands, will continue to surface from powerful private sector interests.

WRCs operate according to a one-nation, one-vote concept, even though few issues rise to the level of a formal vote. None did at the conference that was just concluded. For the United States to succeed at WRCs, whether in advancing new technologies and services or protecting national security, it is essential that the nation reach out early and often in advance of conferences to educate other administrations about its concerns. Lining up support from other administrations and regional groups to voice that support at the conference is essential to reaching solutions acceptable to U.S. interests.

The United States has a vital stake in the efficacy of the ITU’s radio regulations. The U.S. WRC ambassador, Janice Obuchowski, said in one of the WRC plenary sessions that certainty in the radio regulations is essential if investors are to be persuaded to back new radio-based technologies and services. Because the effectiveness of the radio regulations depends upon voluntary compliance by each administration—the ITU has no police force—the United States will find it essential to continue to work within the framework of the ITU. Leading by example in terms of its own compliance will be vital.

Ken Keane is an attorney in Washington, D.C., who specializes in telecommunications law and policy.