World Radiocommunication Conference and the quest for the 6GHz spectrum

World Radiocommunication Conference and the quest for the 6GHz spectrum - Digital

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

On 20 November, delegates will gather in Dubai for the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), where states make decisions on the use of radio-frequency spectrum. Among the issues discussed will be the allocation of 6GHz frequency – and decisions made can have a profound impact on the way people around the world can connect to the internet. 

As outlined in our previous blog, various technologies, from amateur radio, to broadband and mobile internet, need airways to reach people. Those airways make up the spectrum – a limited, natural resource, controlled and managed by governments. It is governments who decide, on the national, regional and global level, which frequencies will be allocated for which technology. 

Different spectrum frequencies have different characteristics that make them suitable for a wide variety of uses,  from satellite communications to Bluetooth systems. 

One of the most sought after frequencies is the 6GHz, part of the so-called C-band. It offers a good mix of coverage and capacity, making it attractive to the International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT) companies for the 5G mobile network technology, which is deployed and used primarily in urban areas. At the same time, 6GHz offers  good coverage in  rural areas which still struggle to get constant and reliable internet access, even in economically developed countries like the United States.  

Because of those attributes, 6GHz has been made available to different technologies and industries for unlicensed use (at no cost) in many parts of the world.

The WiFi protocol, which is increasingly used by more devices and in more indoor settings such as schools or hospitals, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of this. 

Wi-Fi provides users with low-cost broadband access, enabling extensive use of internet-based applications and services without incurring the costs of mobile phone rates. The Federal Communications Commission in the US justified their choice of making the 6GHz band available for unlicensed use by stating that “Wi-Fi has become indispensable for providing low-cost connectivity in countless products.

Previously crammed in the 5GHz frequency, which slowed down its speed, with expansion to 6GHz, WiFi was able to greatly expand its ability to offer reliable connectivity indoors. 

Those advances are now in jeopardy. One of the most disputed agenda items in the WRC starting this November deals with how the ITU will allocate parts of the C-band in Europe, Africa, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Mongolia, and the Middle East (including Iraq), but also if there will be a future discussion about IMT use of the C-band for other regions.

There is an intense pressure for some countries to even reverse their decision on making 6GHz available for unlicensed use and award at least in parts for the IMT.

IMT industries want 6GHz for 5G expansion – but the technology cannot share spectrum with other services without the risk of interference. Getting the 6GHz frequency protected for IMT use (usually via licences bought in auctions for sums of money only the biggest telecom companies can afford to pay), would eliminate a growing and agile competition from WiFi technology. 

Wi-Fi connectivity is versatile and compatible with existing security and management standards, and importantly, can coexist together with  different technologies. This is important to guarantee the diversity of applications and technologies used to transmit information.  

In 2020, the Brazilian Coalizão Direitos na Rede (Coalition for Net Rights) wrote an open letter to their national regulator supporting the unlicensed use of the 6GHz in the country. The letter highlighted how the Wi-Fi used on 6GHz band can be made easily compatible with previous Wi-Fi generations, allowing the immediate use by communities. Affordability is one of the biggest obstacles to connectivity – so finding cheap and reliable solutions that do not require expensive upgrades is a key advantage. 

The balance of unlicensed and licenced spectrum is crucial to guarantee technology neutrality. States such as Kenya, in their National Broadband Strategy, recognise that this neutrality is essential to avoid market concentration and abuse. 

Currently, internet connectivity is concentrated in the hands of large telecom operators, making them a very powerful market player with leverage among countries and regions, especially in developing countries. As profit-driven companies, they often lack commercial incentives to provide reliable services to certain areas and communities, including in the rural and remote parts of the Global South. In many contexts, the overreliance on big telecoms to provide connectivity contributes to the expansion, rather than closing, of the global digital divide. 

Unlicensed spectrum, especially with the characteristics of the 6GHz frequency band, allows other kinds of wireless networks to exist, such as small internet service providers  and wireless community networks. Those alternative players are key to ensuring that the increased demand for internet connectivity can be handled adequately and efficiently, avoiding high costs of deployment and harmful consequences of market concentration.

The discussions held during, and after the WRC will have a profound impact on the ability of millions of people to connect to the internet. It is crucial that civil society follows those debates – the fight for a more democratic and rights-respecting use of the spectrum is far from over.