ITU: Why the World Radiocommunication Conference matters

ITU: Why the World Radiocommunication Conference matters - Digital

World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19), Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. ©ITU/ H. Essawy

In November, delegates will gather in Dubai for the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), where states make decisions on the use and allocation of radio-frequency spectrum – a key resource that impacts the ability of people around the world to access the internet. 

ARTICLE 19 works on understanding the technical and policy dimensions of technologies: our Global Team Digital engages with standard developing organisations, advocating for decisions that respect, protect and promote human rights.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN specialised agency, is a key forum for this engagement; it makes regulatory decisions which govern telecommunications on the international level. 

The ITU has a multilateral governance structure, including state delegations and private sector members. Despite its importance, there is very little civil society participation, especially in the most technical sectors of the agency. But it is in those sectors where binding decisions which directly impact global connectivity are being made. 

ITU-R as the arena of spectrum dispute

From the telegraph to Wi-Fi, wireless telecommunication needs airwaves to reach people. These airwaves, which make up the radio spectrum, are a natural and, in some aspects, limited resource. Their use is controlled and managed by governments at the national, regional and global levels. 

The ITU Radiocommunication Sector, or ITU-R, coordinates radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits worldwide. It sets standards for radio equipment and systems, and develops technical guidelines for ensuring radio spectrum frequencies are used safely and efficiently. 

The more that people rely on wireless internet to access services, the greater the dispute between industry players over who will have access to the most optimal parts of the radio spectrum for their technologies and services.

Mobile technology dominates this dispute. It is the main method by which, especially in the Global South, people connect to the internet; at the same time, the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) industry is highly concentrated, with only a handful of global players, located mainly in the Global North. The industry continues to push for more spectrum to be dedicated to their services, prioritising speed and development of new technologies that would predominantly serve their customers in developed countries, such as 5G and the next generation 6G. 

As profit-driven companies, IMTs often do not have commercial incentives to provide services to certain areas and communities, including in the rural and remote parts of the Global South. 

At the same time, because of how technologies interfere with each other on the spectrum (a presence of one technology can lead to another technology not being able to operate on a given frequency), alternative providers, such as local community networks, cannot step in to fill the gap. 

With the IMT industry prioritising speed and efficiency in the profit-making markets, parts of the world remain unconnected and the digital divide continues to grow for those historically most marginalised.

What happens at the World Telecommunication Conference? 

Between 20 November and 15 December in Dubai, the World Telecommunication Conference will review and update some of the current Radio Regulations – the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum. 

Revisions are made on the basis of an agenda determined by the ITU Council, which takes into account recommendations made by previous Conferences. At the same time, the Conference will define its new agenda items. 

Agenda items are technical topics the Conference agrees to study over the course of the 3-4 years leading to the next WRC. They range from how spectrum is used by a certain service (i.e. mobile or broadband), whether two different services can exist on the same frequency, or conducting studies on harmful interferences between services. 

The technical nature of those items makes them sound neutral – but in reality the studies and methodologies are fiercely questioned and argued, based not only on technical aspects, but also political and economic interests. 

Although each country has a sovereign right to decide on the national use of spectrum, the nature of the internet requires more and more efforts to harmonise spectrum allocation on the global level, meaning that frequencies are allocated to the same services across borders. Harmonisation is one of the ITU goals – it can make services more compatible and create more efficiency in the transmission.  

For the private sector, harmonisation represents more markets to be conquered, less expensive equipment with fewer standards to follow, and better interoperability.

The private sector exerts a lot of pressure on regulators to adopt certain standards and make spectrum available exclusively to some services. This limits the availability of so-called ‘unlicensed spectrum’, which is the spectrum that can be used without payment; limiting the ability of alternative players and local community networks to access the airwaves.  

Why the ITU-R matters to civil society working on freedom of expression

Telecommunication standards, which are defined internationally, have an impact on the way decisions are made regarding what technologies are able to use which part of the spectrum, and how they are implemented on a national level: this was the case with the Internet Generations 3G, 4G, 5G and the following one

This top-down structure, which determines how spectrum will be allocated across services, has real consequences: it may limit the presence of small and alternative providers, who are crucial players in providing internet connectivity, especially in rural or remote areas.. 

Spectrum allocation is a fundamental component of the modern global internet. The technical decisions made in ITU-R and during the WRC are therefore crucial for anyone advocating for meaningful connectivity and bridging the digital divide. It is essential that civil society follows those conversations closely. 

The next WRC agenda topics to be discussed and decided in the next 3-4 years will be published soon. Civil society can get involved by engaging with national regulators in their respective countries, directly in the ITU or as part of a regional telecom bloc such as Inter-American Telecommunication Commission, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations, the African Postal and Telecommunications Union, or The Asia Pacific Telecommunity. It is also possible to request to join a national delegation to follow ITU meetings; since the pandemic, most of the ITU meetings take place in a hybrid format.  

The work in the ITU takes time, resources and requires a degree of technical understanding of the topic – but it is vital that civil society is present in the discussions determining the future of connectivity and the internet. 

Without them, decisions will be made without the presence of voices of people, especially from the Global Majority, who will be directly affected by them.