Telcos make 5G plea for upper 6GHz spectrum

Ray Le Maistre
By Ray Le Maistre

Nov 21, 2023

The ITU’s secretary general, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, at the WRC-23 opening ceremony. Source: ITU

The ITU’s secretary general, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, at the WRC-23 opening ceremony. Source: ITU

  • The World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) is underway 
  • Almost a month of meetings will decide on which spectrum bands can be used for which purposes
  • Telcos are pushing specifically for additional ‘mid-band’ spectrum to be allocated for mobile services in the “upper 6GHz” frequencies

With a duration of four weeks, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)’s World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23), now underway in Dubai, is a marathon of spectrum-related decision-making: At the finishing line, the telco community hopes, will be rulings that will apportion greater slices of the world’s airwaves to high-speed 5G connectivity and rural mobile service coverage. 

Delegates attending the WRC-23, which began on Monday 20 November and runs to Friday 15 December (just imagine the expenses bills!), will be making critical decisions about the future availability and use of licensed spectrum. The conference, which is held every three to four years, “will review and update the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of spectrum and geostationary and non-geostationary satellite orbits,” noted the ITU, highlighting that this affects the increasingly important satellite communications sector. 

“We are at an inflection point in tech history, and radiocommunications are at the top of the global agenda,” stated the ITU’s secretary general, Doreen Bogdan-Martin (pictured above). “Equitably managed spectrum and the associated satellite orbits are among the best tools in our toolbox to make good on our commitment to build a digital future that works for everyone and for our planet.” 

The conference has seven main agenda topics, but the three of most importance to the TelecomTV community are: 

  • Identifying additional frequency bands for the continued development of International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT), including the use of high-altitude platform stations as IMT base stations for the universal deployment of wireless networks.
  • Improvements to the international regulatory framework for geostationary orbit (GSO) and non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites while promoting equitable access for all countries.
  • Use of satellite technologies for broadband services to improve connectivity, particularly in remote areas.

International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) is the way the ITU references mobile communications, such as 4G and 5G. IMT-2020, for example, refers to the ITU standards upon which the 3GPP developed the various specifications for 5G, while IMT-2030 is the nomenclature for what will ultimately become the ITU standards for what we currently refer to as 6G. 

While 6G is down the line, what the telcos want right now are these “additional frequencies” for their existing services, specifically in the upper 6 GHz band (6425-7125 MHz) for high-speed 5G services and in the sub-700 MHz frequencies (470-694 MHz) that enable a broader coverage in rural areas.

The case for both of these has been encapsulated in a statement from telco sector lobby group the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) that suggests digital society goals cannot be reached without such assets. “The European telecom industry is asking for the IMT identification of the ‘Upper 6-GHz’ as well as for creating the conditions to allow macro deployments. We believe this is necessary to allow the mobile technology ecosystem to contribute towards Europe’s digital goals,” stated ETNO.    

Vodafone added to the cause with a plea that outlined how important the upper 6GHz band will be in helping to meet user demands and, importantly, referenced trial results that highlighted the improved indoor user experience to back up its case. The operator’s trials show that the “upper 6GHz frequency band can provide a very effective capacity layer for existing 5G networks,” stated the telco’s director of network architecture, Yago Tenorio, in this announcement. “6GHz for 5G will be critical within five years to avoid any degradation in service if demand for fast connectivity continues at its current growth trajectory of 30% every year. A positive decision to allocate the upper 6GHz spectrum band for International Mobile Telecommunications at WRC this month will mean harmonisation of services and ensure a richer ecosystem of equipment and devices across Europe and other regions. We will be able to keep up with demand, keep costs down, while improving energy efficiency using new automated services. We shouldn’t waste this opportunity,” added Tenorio. 

For the lower, sub-700 MHz bands, the pressure point being pushed by the telcos is one that is very close to the ITU’s collective heart – the digital divide.

“With the growing demand for mobile broadband services in rural areas, the ‘sub-700 MHz’ band is of utmost importance to support the reduction of the digital divide in sparsely populated areas and provide better access to digital healthcare, education, and diverse media services,” proclaimed ETNO. “It will also support other usage scenarios, such as automated driving, by strengthening nationwide networks. For this reason, we believe that a primary mobile allocation in the 470-694 MHz band would be the most efficient decision to help bridge the urban-rural digital divide in the future. Delaying the decision to the next WRC would be a missed opportunity. While WRC-23 decisions do not preempt any European decisions on the future usage of spectrum, a primary mobile allocation in ‘sub-700 MHz’ would allow Europe to decide flexibly when and how to introduce mobile services in these bands,” it added.

But it’s not a case of WRC-23 allocating currently unused spectrum. For example, the upper 6 GHz band is currently used in the UK for a variety of services, including “fixed [wireless] links, fixed satellite services, certain short-range devices, Earth exploration satellite services and radio astronomy,” according to UK regulator Ofcom. The sub-700 MHz band is widely used for digital TV services. If the WRC-23 assigns spectrum in those frequencies to IMT services, it means they will not be available to others in other sectors, which have their own lobby groups and arguments. As ever, WRC-23 will be a battleground for vested interests.  

The WRC-23 conference was preceded by the ITU Radiocommunication Assembly 2023 (RA-23), which “adopted a resolution that will guide the development of standards and radio interface technologies for the 6th generation of International Mobile Telecommunications systems,” otherwise known as 6G or, in ITU parlance, IMT-2030. “Among other outcomes, RA‑23 also adopted a resolution on gender equality to strengthen, accelerate and widen the active involvement of women in the work of the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU‑R),” added the ITU in this blog.

You can find out more about the outcomes of the RA-23 in this ITU press release

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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