The Road to WRC-23: Regional Bodies Debate the Future of the Upper 6 GHz Band
Across EMEA, governments are concerned about the implications of identifying the 6425-7025 MHz band for IMT.
The outcome of a major international conference later this year will help determine whether the world can fully harness the potential of Wi-Fi 6E to enhance the connectivity available to consumers and companies. At the World Radiocommunications Conference 2023 (WRC-23), national administrations will decide whether to identify the 6425-7025 MHz band for IMT in International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Region 1 – Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) – and the 7025-7125 MHz band worldwide. Such an identification would mean that this spectrum may not become available to unlicensed technologies, such as Wi-Fi, in parts of EMEA, even though it is license-exempt in most of the Americas, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.
Although there are only a few months until WRC-23 gets under way in Dubai this November, regional groups in EMEA have yet to finalize their position on whether this spectrum should be identified for IMT. A major concern among many governments is the impact IMT would have on incumbent services, such as fixed satellite services (FSS) and fixed services – the microwave links that are used for a wide range of important services, such as public safety systems, management of electricity grids, and IMT backhaul. For more on the implications for the satellite industry, please see the interview with Paul Deedman of Viasat.
In its final conference preparatory meeting report, the ITU outlines the various regulatory methods that could be used to address the various agenda items. The Wi-Fi industry is working hard to get administrations to support Method 4A for 6425-7025 MHz in Region 1 and Method 5A for 7025-7125 MHz globally, which would equate to No Change to the existing Radio Regulations.
At its WRC-23 preparatory meeting at the end of May, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) didn’t reach a consensus on whether the 6425-7025 MHz band should be identified for IMT. Approximately half of the SADC member states support No Change, amid concerns about the likely impact of IMT on incumbent services in the band. Similarly, no consensus was reached with regard to an IMT identification of the 7025-7125 MHz band. Similar concerns means the East African Communications Organization (EACO) has also been unable to agree a common position, while members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have decided to make their support for IMT in the upper 6 GHz band conditional on adequate protections for existing services. At a working group meeting of the African Telecommunications Union in late July, some members expressed support for an IMT identification, while others were in favor of No Change.
In Europe, there are two parallel decision-making tracks. At the EU level, the European Commission has drafted (confidential) text that is due to be considered by the Council of Ministers. That text is reported to be deliberately ambiguous, as many EU nations are looking to maintain as much flexibility as possible – many administrations want to retain the option to deploy Wi-Fi and other license-free technologies in the band.
In March, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) started to conduct studies on the feasibility of whether the 6425-7125 MHz band can be shared by IMT and wireless access services/radio local area networks (WAS/RLAN). In its draft common position, CEPT says: “Europe will consider, by 2024 or later, the best usage of the frequency band 6425-7125 MHz for wireless broadband in the future: either IMT or WAS/RLAN or a shared framework between IMT and WAS/RLAN, noting that an IMT identification does not preclude the use of this frequency band by any application of the services to which it is allocated and does not establish priority in the Radio Regulations.”
However, many experts are skeptical about whether commercial IMT services, which employ high levels of power, can share spectrum with other services without harmful interference. Low power Wi-Fi, by contrast, is successfully sharing the 6 GHz band with incumbent services, such as fixed satellite and fixed wireless links. CEPT’s draft common position, which will be submitted for adoption at a meeting in Dublin in September, says it neither proposes nor supports an IMT identification of 6425-7215 MHz, but could accept one if five conditions are fulfilled. If these conditions are not fulfilled, CEPT will support No Change (underlined).
These conditions include the protection of existing services in the band and that there are no limitations on their future development. Another condition is that the IMT Resolution should clearly outline opportunities for other broadband applications in mobile services, such as WAS/RLAN, as well as sufficient flexibility regarding future wireless broadband usage, by IMT, WAS/RLAN or under a shared framework between IMT and WAS/RLAN. CEPT’s acceptance is also dependent on WRC-23 not approving an agenda item for WRC-27 studying additional IMT identifications in frequency bands between 7 GHz and 30 GHz.
Meanwhile, the administrations in the Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG) have yet to reach a consensus. Some Arab governments believe the entire 6 GHz band should be made available for Wi-Fi and other license-exempt technologies, while others are concerned about the potential impact of commercial IMT services on existing satellite and fixed wireless services, which play a key role in delivering connectivity across this diverse region. While the ASMG will try to reach a consensus at its meeting in Bahrain this September, it may leave it to individual member countries to vote in their own interests at WRC-23 on the future of the 6 GHz band.
The widespread reluctance among EMEA administrations to support an IMT identification in the upper 6 GHz band reflects both a desire to protect incumbent services from interference and a growing awareness that such a move would not help to achieve 5G coverage targets or bridge the digital divide between rural and urban areas. At the same time, administrations are increasingly recognizing the urgent need to increase the spectrum available for Wi-Fi, given the pivotal role the technology plays in enabling the vast majority of internet access, which takes place indoors.
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