WRC-23: A Decisive Year for 5G Spectrum Allocation

This article is part of the Spectrum Policy Trends 2023 report. Download the full report for a handy compilation of the top six spectrum policy trends for 2023.

All eyes will be on Dubai at the end of 2023, when decisions will be made that are critical to the future of both mobile connectivity and the wider communications ecosystem. The ITU’s quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), taking place from 20 November – 15 December, will gather national administrations and telecom industry members to review and update the global use of radio frequencies.

The WRC defines how wireless communications providers, using services including mobile, satellite, Wi-Fi, radio astronomy and radars, ensure radio compatibility between each other across locations and frequency bands. As more devices and services come online, pressure on spectrum and the co-existence between services gets more and more intense.

Why does it matter?

Historically, WRCs have played a critical role in the mobile industry connecting more than 5 billion people. WRC-23 is a chance to build on that achievement by identifying spectrum that will help expand the availability of affordable 5G services and ensure future growth and innovation. It is an opportunity to build a spectrum roadmap going into the 2030s, address the digital divide and ensure 5G can benefit billions.

For mobile users, two issues are at stake: both the expansion and the harmonisation of core 5G spectrum capacity. With the right spectrum, 5G rollout can continue to flourish and all parts of the world can have access to 5G technologies. Expanding and harmonising access to mobile spectrum can deliver scale while, decreasing both network density and network capex. In doing so it can put affordable, next-generation mobile services into the hands of the whole world.

Spectrum in low and mid-bands is being discussed at WRC-23. On average, a total of 2 GHz of mid-band spectrum will be required per market to support the growth of 5G by 2030 while more low-band spectrum can deliver faster speeds in rural areas and lower the digital divide.

In mid-bands, further harmonisation of the 3.5 GHz band is expected but getting to the required 2 GHz of mid-band is challenging to reach without 6 GHz capacity as well. One of the measures of WRC-23’s success will be in its ability to secure 5G’s future in the identification of 6 GHz spectrum. With it, the conference can deliver fast, affordable mobile broadband to all parts of the world, lower the usage gap and narrow the digital divide.

What are the policy considerations?

Through the Agenda Items (AIs) below, WRC-23 will look at both mid-band and low-band (sub-1 GHz) frequencies for mobile.

AI 1.1: IMT in the band 4 800-4 990 MHz
The 4800-4990 MHz band has the backing of a growing ecosystem, based on new assignments in China, nearby assignments in Japan and the ongoing activity for WRC-23. In short, it is backed by countries representing a large portion of the world’s population. That makes it a strong option for adding more mid-band spectrum, which is needed to ensure future 5G growth.

AI 1.2: IMT in a number of bands including in the 3.5 GHz, 6 GHz and 10-10.5 GHz ranges
The 6 GHz range is a core component of the spectrum needed to realise universal 5G connectivity. 6425-7125 MHz is a priority band for MNOs on a global basis as they look to increase capacity and lower costs on the road towards 5G-advanced. Further harmonisation of the 3.5 GHz range – the birthplace of 5G in most of the world – will increase scale, diversity and affordability. 10-10.5 GHz can provide valuable additional capacity in between mid-band and mmWave.

AI 1.3: mobile use of the 3 600-3 800 MHz in Region 1 (EMEA)
AI 1.2 and 1.3 are an opportunity to achieve greater harmonisation of the 3.5 GHz range. 3.3-3.4 GHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz are both being considered under these Agenda Items. The 3.5 GHz range is the 5G launch band in most countries and as such has the deepest ecosystem and most affordable devices. An IMT identification in both sub-bands will help support the mid-band capacity requirements of IMT-2020.

3.5 GHz has been the 5G launch band for about 80% of networks and its city-wide capacity has created the perfect environment for much of the earliest 5G connectivity.

AI 1.5: consideration of sub-1 GHz spectrum in Region 1 (EMEA)
Agenda Item 1.5 looks at low-band frequencies below 1 GHz, which can be used to provide increased 5G capacity and performance in rural areas. Low band helps countries meet social goals, achieve digital parity between urban and rural, as well as helping networks reach deeper in-buildings, cover agricultural areas with IoT and develop transport communications.

Increased low band spectrum can give users in rural areas comparable IMT access to those in urban areas and help lower broadband prices, making access to communications services more inclusive and lowering the digital divide.

What we expect to see in the year ahead

The study cycle between WRCs, where the ITU’s Working Party structure is used to carry out analysis of the spectrum needs of different services and the sharing studies to ensure compatibility of spectrum, reaches its conclusion with the Conference Preparatory Meeting (CPM) in early 2023. This will finalise the CPM Report that summarises studies and gives options – or “Methods” to support at the WRC itself. The CPM will be held from 27 March – 6 April 2023 in Geneva.

Each regional group will meet at least once in 2023 to finalise their preparatory work and positions for WRC-23. These groups aim to harmonise their approaches ahead of WRCs and common positions will be sought by the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT), Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG), African Telecommunications Union (ATU), European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL) and Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications (RCC). These common positions will be used as inputs to the WRC itself and individual countries, or groups of countries, will give inputs as well. Businesses and international organisations will all share their views in the regional groups and have a clear presence at the WRC.

Find out more about GSMA’s work at WRC here.

Policy Good Practice: WRC-19 strikes a good balance, sets stage for mmWave 5G
At WRC-19, countries supported a harmonised identification of high-band, or mmWave, frequencies in 26 GHz, 40 GHz, and 66 GHz for ultra-high-speed and ultra-low latency consumer, business and government services.

The global harmonisation of high-band frequencies was a step forward in the development of mmWave mobile. It has since led to national governments around the world making mobile assignments across the identified mmWave spectrum.  

At WRC-23, 6 GHz is the new development band. Future-proof mid-band 5G and 5G-Advanced can become a reality with the backing of governments at WRC-23.