WRC-23 spectrum decisions ‘just the beginning’ – GSMA exec

Ray Le Maistre
By Ray Le Maistre

Dec 22, 2023

Source: ITU

Source: ITU

  • Spectrum decisions at the recent WRC-23 were positive for the mobile operator community
  • Significant progress was made in the 3 GHz and 6 GHz bands, notes the GSMA’s spectrum director Ross Bateson
  • But there are still many markets lacking low-band airwaves for rural mobile
  • And there’s still plenty of work to be done on the ‘assignment mechanisms’ that get the mobile broadband spectrum into the hands of the operators

The spectrum decisions made at the conclusion of the recent World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) in Dubai were very positive for the global mobile operator community, but that was just the first of many steps to enable better and broader mobile broadband coverage in markets across the world, according to Ross Bateson, spectrum director at industry body the GSMA.

Bateson, who was in Dubai as part of the GSMA delegation for most of the WRC-23’s four weeks of negotiations and meetings, said the organisation, which represents the interests of mobile operators all over the world, was very satisfied with the result. “We’re very pleased with the decisions and the balance, as our members are also providers of fixed services using Wi-Fi technology,” which has in most countries been assigned unlicensed spectrum in the lower 6 GHz band, while the upper 6 GHz band 6 (6.425-7.125 GHz) has now been broadly assigned for licensed 5G mobile broadband services. 

He is particularly pleased with the outcome for the upper 6 GHz band, a band that major mobile operators have been coveting to help with their 5G service developments.   

That decision “is a really important trigger for our ecosystem development. Upper 6 GHz is a new band – just before WRC, the first prototype device using 6 GHz was released by MediaTek and tested on an Ericsson base station, but this is early days in 6 GHz product development. That’s a 5G expansion band that will be used for 5G-Advanced in the second half of this decade, so getting that ecosystem push from the regulatory result was really important,” stated Bateson. 

He also cited important progress in the allocation of 3.5 GHz spectrum in the Americas, EMEA region and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), while it wasn’t on the agenda for the APAC region, and some important gains in low-band spectrum identification for mobile services, though there’s still a lot to be done there in many markets across Africa, where such airwaves are important for rural coverage.  

“But maybe the place which needed low-band [spectrum] the most is the Africa continent with lots of wide rural areas and higher digital inequality than other parts of the world. And they only made small steps forward with some allocations in some countries. It was a shame that we didn't move further in Africa… If you look at some of the statistics for digital inequality in low- and middle-income countries, you're 29% less likely to use the mobile internet if you live in a rural area compared to living in an urban area… in sub-Saharan Africa, that inequality goes up to 49%... that low band capacity could have helped that digital inequality. We didn't get there. So there’s still work to be done and we have a clear pathway for our work on this towards [WRC] 2031,” stated the GSMA man. 

What is holding up low-band allocation in Africa? Bateson explained that it’s mainly because the low-band spectrum is being used by digital TV service providers that have only relatively recently built out their networks and started to develop and grow their channel packages. But he also noted that there are some major markets in Africa that are already making plans for the use of 600 MHz spectrum for mobile, including Nigeria, Egypt, Tanzania, Senegal and Gambia. 

“Nigeria, for example, has already put out a letter of intent on its 600 MHz band [and is]  potentially looking at a reverse auction approach where, instead of paying high fees for the spectrum, the operators promise 5G coverage using the 600 Mhz band… that quite innovative spectrum allocation mechanism” could result in broad 5G service coverage across Nigeria’s rural areas “fairly quickly,” he explained. 

And this is where much of the work now needs to be done, according to Bateson. While the WRC-23 decisions mean the GSMA and its mobile operator members “have the tools we need to get on with the job of providing enough capacity in our networks to cope with data growth... the WRC is just the start. That’s the international harmonisation done. It’s clear that these bands will be used, but making sure they are assigned, at the right time and with reasonable conditions and pricing, is really important. 

“[We need] good assignment mechanisms, whether that’s a sensibly created auction or something else. The important thing now is that we move ahead with the decisions of WRC and make sure we can use the spectrum to deliver our promise of faster download speeds and a great new world of connectivity [and] also use that to enhance the mobile sector’s impact on carbon emissions reduction and provide a bright future for the world,” concluded the optimistic GSMA man. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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