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The World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 – why it matters to Canadians

In November, 2015, Geneva, Switzerland will host a meeting that will prove pivotal in the future of global wireless communications.

What wireless services are available on which global frequencies are determined by the 1100 delegates from 193 Member States at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), hosted every three to four years by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This conference is little known outside specialist circles but the impact of its decisions will echo for years across wireless industries.

The history of globalized communication runs through this conference. The roots of the WRC are older than Canada. The ITU was established in May 1865, when its twenty founding members signed the first International Telegraph Convention in Paris. The first International Radiotelegraph Conference was held in Berlin in 1906.

We’ve moved well beyond telegraphy but the need for international cooperation and coordination in wireless remains. The WRC establishes the global priority of access to valuable radio frequencies. The future of everything from cell phones, to air traffic control, to satellites, to baby monitors is guided by decisions made at the WRC.

As an example of the WRC impact at home, in 2014, Canada auctioned off the 700 MHz frequencies, previously reserved for television broadcasting, netting the Canadian government over $5 billion. Similar auctions of the so-called “digital dividend” have been held around the world. In Canada, the “Big Three” wireless carriers – Rogers, Telus and Bell – have since launched fast LTE service on this band in various parts of the country. Canadian spectrum management company Loxcel Geomatics published the following numbers of 700 MHz cell phone towers providing this new service nation-wide as of May, 2015, one year after the auction:

Rogers            1,345

Telus                701

Bell                  690

This recent growth of mobile services on the 700 MHz band can be traced to the WRC 2007 decision to open those frequencies to International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT).

In a similar vein, the explosion in WiFi in the last decade owes some of its growth to the WRC 2003 decision to open up more spectrum for “mobile wireless access systems”. This allowed WiFi the capacity to grow and become the ubiquitous technology it is today. Clearly, decisions made at this relatively unknown conference are eventually felt in our day-to-day engagement with wireless communications.

The upcoming conference is anticipated to have significant impact on the wireless and TV broadcasting industries. According to the wireless industry journal Policy Tracker, WRC 2015 “will see a major shake up” of lower frequencies most coveted by wireless service providers (Policy Tracker, January 2015). Industries already occupying these frequencies, such as the remaining terrestrial television broadcasters (over the air and received by antenna) are questioning the feasibility of sharing spectrum with the growing wireless broadband industry. After WRC 2015, wireless growth may come at the expense of broadcasting.

The first agenda item for WRC 2015 is key for the future of broadcasting and wireless broadband:

1.1 to consider additional spectrum allocations to the mobile service on a primary basis and identification of additional frequency bands for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) and related regulatory provisions, to facilitate the development of terrestrial mobile broadband applications (International Telecommunication Union, 2012).

In short, item 1.1 seeks to make more spectrum available for the purpose of providing mobile broadband. In recent years, there have been claims from incumbent wireless operators that they are in dire need of more spectrum. However, these arguments are often disputed by others who use the spectrum, including those in the broadcasting and satellite industries. The future of these industries will be heavily impacted by this agenda item at WRC. Whether or not you are able to watch hockey games in HD on your cell phone or tablet will be influenced by spectrum allocation decisions made in Geneva in 2015.

The upcoming 2015 conference has had a lengthy development: the general scope was established four years ago and the agenda has been set for almost two years. Despite the years of preparation for this important conference, a great deal remains uncertain. Much of the information for WRC 2015 is publicly accessible, but not freely so. Access to national contributions to the conference requires a TIES (Telecommunication Information Exchange Service) account that costs 4000 Swiss francs, or over $5000 Canadian dollars. No Canadian academic institutions are currently affiliated with WRC 2015 but Canadian Spectrum Policy Research is aware of industry involvement in the Canadian preparatory meetings by leading wireless providers and hardware manufacturers.

WRC 2015 will have ripple effects for years to come in our wireless services. Faster mobile Internet speed and increased adoption of Wi-Fi are only two examples of this meeting’s historical impact. Major international bureaucracies do not move at fibre-optic speed and it will take some time to implement WRC 2015 decisions. Industry Canada’s current Canadian Table of Frequency Allocations was released in 2014 and is designed to reflect the decisions made at WRC 2012. The “new” spectrum being deployed for fast LTE coverage in Canada in 2015 is a direct result of WRC 2007. Bands allocated for mobile at WRC 2015 may take 5 to 10 years before they actually come into use (Policy Tracker, January 2015).

Though not nearly as splashy or well-reported as the launch of the newest Apple gizmo, if you wish to view our digital future, you may wish to pay attention to the WRC in Geneva next month.

Gregory Taylor

University of Calgary

Oct 27, 2015


Sources Cited:

Policy Tracker. (January 2015). WRC-15 Briefing: Key issues, areas of disagreement and likely outcomes.