After almost a month of intense negotiations, the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) wrapped up last week. Here, ARTICLE 19 looks at its key outcomes which will be impacting global connectivity and people’s ability to access the internet for years to come.
The WRC is not just an obscure, tech-centric event; it’s where the realms of global markets and geopolitical strategies intersect profoundly, impacting civil society in significant ways. WRC discussions become arenas where countries and corporations compete for global influence.
This is because access to specific spectrum bands and orbits translates to market dominance – and the decisions made during the Conference can shape who leads in various technological sectors, directly impacting market shares and economic influence, at times at the expense of societal and human rights considerations.
Spectrum allocation for connectivity
At the heart of WRC 2023 was the allocation of spectrum: the highways that enable our connectivity. During the Conference, nations push for spectrum allocations which align with their geopolitical objectives.
Control over specific bands isn’t merely about technological market advantage. It is also about strategic ones, impacting national security, intelligence, and defence capabilities.
ARTICLE 19 has been closely following the discussions around the allocation of the 6GHz spectrum. The “identification” (term used by the ITU to describe a process by which a service is given a green light to be used in a certain frequency band) of 6GHz and Ultra High Frequency for International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT) were disputed until the very last minute of the Conference.
Some of the countries which previously supported keeping the upper part of 6GHz for unlicensed use, including Brazil, have shifted their positions, opening up a possibility that the frequency can eventually be used by IMTs. The discussions are set to continue during WRC 2027, but the demands of many Global Majority countries (including the majority of Southeast Asia and some sub-Saharan African countries) show that the consensus around unlicensed use of 6GHz no longer holds, and the mobile industry is likely to be granted part of the 6GHz band for its use. This could lead to further market concentration, reduce the technology diversity and lock poorer countries in a for-profit model that doesn’t favour them.
Economic stakes and market dominance
Spectrum allocations directly impact industries and market access. The battle for favourable allocations is as much about technological innovation, as it is about economic power. Nations seek bands that support their industries, aiming to foster innovation, attract investments, and gain competitive advantages in global markets.
Discussions at the WRC involve intricate diplomatic negotiations, where countries form alliances based on shared interests. These coalitions leverage collective influence to support spectrum allocations beneficial for their economic and geopolitical goals.
In the ITU we saw how the IMT industry influenced the decisions of a number of European Union countries and China. Despite this fact, there is still time for civil society to engage with their national governments. It is crucial that voices outside of the tech industry come to the table, to help avoid increasing market concentration in the hands of a few companies in the mobile industry, and advocate for technology and business models that are more open and diverse.
Satellite services and global communication
The decisions made at WRC 2023 about satellite orbits might seem distant, but they’re critical for global communication. Efficiently managed orbits mean enhanced emergency response systems, weather forecasting, and better access to information, impacting disaster management and public safety worldwide.
With the new non geostationary Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite companies like Starlink and Kuiper launching thousands of satellites in their constellations, there is the need to coordinate not only the spectrum, but also the available space in that orbit.
The ITU does not regulate the activity of specific companies or providers, however for the first time during this WRC, the nGSO satellites like LEO were taken into consideration as relevant actors to be managed together with other services in the telecommunications ecosystem. This means that regions and countries will now be developing their own framework for regulating LEO.
Both worldwide and locally, this will be an addition to the already disputed arena for spectrum allocation across the world.
It is important that civil society, especially in the Global Majority, understands the risks of the concentration of a service in the hands of those two dominant companies, both coming from the United States. Those companies are often held as saviours for people facing internet shutdowns, who turn to Starlik for a fast solution to the lack of connectivity.
Despite certain media portrayals Starlink acts just like any other industry player. The company has commercial interests and has to make agreements with national governments who, in the end, are the ones managing spectrum and authorising telecommunication services to operate in their area.
While the technical jargon might seem confusing, the outcomes of WRC 23 directly affect people around the world. From improved connectivity and technological advancements to ensuring fair competition and access to communication technologies, these decisions shape the world we all live in.
Understanding these intersections between geopolitical strategies and market interests is crucial for stakeholders, especially civil society, to advocate for their respective agendas on global connectivity, and meaningful access to communication technologies. The decisions made during this Conference not only pave the way for technological advancements but also shape economic landscapes and global power dynamics.
As citizens, understanding these implications can empower us to advocate for a world where technology serves humanity’s best interests and fosters a more connected and equitable society.