Managing growth, managing spectrum: best practices in spectrum harmonization

Digital World 2021 Highlights September

Managing growth, managing spectrum: best practices in spectrum harmonization

Why is spectrum harmonization so important, yet increasingly difficult to achieve – and what new approaches or solutions can improve the situation? These were the questions addressed by panellists drawn from a broad range of services dependent on the use of service-appropriate, interference-free spectrum in this informative and thought-provoking debate, ably moderated by Joanne Wilson, Deputy Director of ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau.

Radio frequency spectrum is a limited natural resource critical for a huge range of terrestrial and space services on the land, at sea and in the skies. The importance of harmonizing use of spectrum across all services is not in doubt – and nor is the increasing difficulty in reaching this shared goal as demand for spectrum grows.

But if harmonization is so critical, why is it so hard to achieve?

Before the session had even started, a look at the impressive breadth and depth of the speakers provided an answer to this question. Representing spectrum stakeholders from the mobile, satellite and broadcasting industries, from earth science, meteorology, maritime and space research services, the panel embodied the multi-stakeholder nature of spectrum use – and the rich variety of competing demands upon a limited resource essential for services to ensure, variously, safety of life, global coverage, technological innovation, and socio-economic development

Spectrum matters

In the words of Ruy Pinto, CTO, SES: “Spectrum is our life blood – we can only provide services to customers if we have spectrum.”

The result of many years of research and collaboration nationally, regionally and globally, harmonization of spectrum allocation and use is key for successful connectivity in the broadest sense. “It sets the scene for investment, industrial planning and the present and future of ecosystems. And it touches the user directly, guaranteeing economies of scale, lower prices and better services,” as well as avoiding interference in border areas between countries and services, emphasized Luis Felippe Zoghbi, Spectrum Policy Manager, GSMA

Sufficient spectrum in appropriate frequency bands is needed to enable innovative services and solutions, according to Osamu Kamimura, Vice President and Head of Spectrum Policy Officer, SoftBank Corporation. It is important to see the wider picture: meeting the UN Sustainability Development Goals, mitigating the effects of climate change and working for sustainable human development across the globe will be helped by technology – technology which relies on spectrum.

Global coverage, safety of life

Spectrum enables public service broadcasters to provide content and reach mass audiences through broadband, satellite and terrestrial services, stated Elena Puigrefagut, Senior Project Manager, Technology & Innovation, European Broadcasting Union, giving the example of television sets or standard FM radios around the world that tune to the same broadcasting bands. “The administration of spectrum has been the key to our success” as an industry, she said.

Victor D Sparrow, Assistant Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN), Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, NASA, pointed out that space research, earth exploration and radio astronomy are dependent on spectrum allocations enabling global interoperability and economies of scale with multiple partners and shared missions. Leveraging spectrum harmonization is key to enabling space science and earth science to function.

Environmental monitoring, weather prediction and associated services contribute to safety of life and property, mitigating climate change and advancing global development – and are more important than ever as extreme weather events occur increasingly frequently. Accurate forecasting and monitoring from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) rely on spectrum for robust observation, measurement and communication through ground- and space-based systems, according to Kenneth Holmlund, Head of Space Systems and Utilization, WMO.

Spectrum harmonization is also critical for the safe operation of aircraft globally, added Loftur Jonasson, Chief/CNSS, International Civil Aviation Organization, highlighting the importance of reliable radio communication, navigation and automation services on a global scale, aligned with the regulatory frameworks of all administrations.

Growing demand, growing difficulties

Given the dependence on spectrum across such a range of competing services, the need for spectrum harmonization is undisputed. This complex task has been administered globally for many years through the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, managing and updating the Radio Regulations international treaty providing binding guidelines on radio frequency spectrum allocation in different services and regions.

But why is spectrum harmonization becoming increasingly challenging?

For Pinto, the answer lies not just in multiple stakeholders competing for a share of a scarce resource – there is also the added complication of multiple regional or national regulations in different countries with different spectrum allocations and licence conditions. “National regulations and ITU guidelines do not always align,” he said.

Providing a regulatory body perspective, Stephen Michael Talbot, Head of International Spectrum Policy at the Office of Communications (Ofcom), pointed out that spectrum licensing is a national competency – yet services such as satellite, aeronautical, maritime and space sciences require an international environment. There may be friction between national sovereignty and international harmonization of authorisation.

New spectrum is needed to support new services such as IMT, stressed Nan Li, Deputy Director of Wireless and Terminal Technology Institute, China Mobile Research Institute, outlining that 4G focuses on low and medium spectrum, but planned 5G services will require higher bands and a 20-fold increase in bandwidth. Without unified spectrum planning and harmonization, this will lead to an increase in the cost of terminals and other equipment to support global roaming. Finding the exact frequency ranges to support expanding mobile services is a major challenge, especially as lower bands are already crowded, agreed Softbank’s Kamimura.

As spectrum demand increases, so too does the difficulty of coordinating national or regional authorisations to avoid fragmentation or interference. And harmonization is key to creating regulatory stability and allowing for investment in innovation, as Puigrefagut summarised: “It is difficult for an industry if there is no certainty in the frequencies and in the regulation to continue to invest in innovation and be proactive.”

Increasing demand has created pressure on spectrum allocation, leading at times to a “disharmonized” or “opportunistic” approach, said Jonasson. Sharing spectrum or allocating adjacent spectrum bands to different services – such as repurposing for 5G roll out – can have major safety implications for safety of life in aviation, he pointed out: “It is becoming increasingly difficult to retain interference-free services in some bands used by aeronautical safety systems.”

Fellow representatives of incumbent services agreed. According to NASA’s Sparrow: “Adjacent or alternative service allocations outside of space science are becoming a threat, encroaching on protected bands.”

This is particularly important in passive bands with specific characteristics that do not have alternatives. As Uwe Baeder, Director, International Relations, Rohde & Schwarz GmbH & Co. KG, explained, some services cannot be moved  in the spectrum because they exploit the physical properties of a specific frequency band.

Global shipping also depends on reliable radio communication and navigation to function effectively – and to protect life at sea. Yet here, too, “we are running into trouble with adjacent bandoperations,” warned Alexander Schwarz, Vice-chair-elect, Sub-committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR), International Maritime Organization. Some satellite communications on ships may not function as expected in coastal areas where there are IMT base stations; any future harmonization of non-maritime services that may produce interference in the spectral vicinity of maritime should urgently include compatibility studies.

Technology is a key part of the solution…

Technical advancements can provide many solutions to better and more effective spectrum harmonization, the panellists broadly agreed. For Zoghbi, representing the mobile industry, this would allow more flexibility for equipment manufacturers and vendors to serve global markets with the same products, maximising economies of scale and enabling countries and regions to identify the most appropriate frequencies within a range to guarantee “not just the future of mobile services, but any other services which focus on providing connectivity to a better future.”

Puigrefagut outlined the need to “improve technology to mitigate interference and facilitate sharing between services,” which would allow for certainty across industries and investors.

Making a better estimation of spectrum demand for future use, calculating requirements in specific areas and time periods would enable smarter spectrum allocation, according to Li. “Spectrum sharing techniques based on spectrum database and cognitive radio techniques or spectrum interference techniques can solve the issue.” It is important to continue researching new technologies for increased spectral efficiency, and to reduce demand in certain frequencies – including new techniques to operate IMT systems in higher frequencies.

Technology development will allow for better coordination and planning to promote spectrum sharing whilst protecting key services. “We need to look at technology and how it can increase utilization of spectrum operations to traverse across multiple service allocations without being a threat to incumbents,” urged Sparrow.

In remote sensing of the atmosphere. the observed properties are directly linked to specific frequencies of the spectrum that cannot be shifted. There is therefore also a need to protect certain bands or frequencies

Maintaining the balance between innovation and protection is the nut which technology and regulation must crack together. “It is necessary to protect existing services, but also inappropriate to deny the possibility of innovation that comes with technological progress in order to ensure sustainable development,” said Kamimura, calling for further research into new techniques to cover different frequencies, provide better protection from interference and promote spectrum sharing.

…but cannot do it alone

“Technology will not solve all problems, but software-defined radio, better measurement equipment and a better understanding of interference can help,” said Pinto. “But we have an institutional issue on conflicting regulation that we should recognise and try to address.”

He called for “advocating at the supranational level a more encompassing role for ITU to minimize the discrepancies between ITU regulations in spectrum coordination and national regulations” to benefit industry, private companies and international organizations alike.

Ofcom’s Talbot highlighted the practice of “service layering” – continuously seeking to add services into existing allocations. “The ultimate endgame to this is all services in all bands”, he pointed out. But perhaps we could be more dynamic and even remove some allocations in the future to provide greater clarity.

For Jonasson, “As the aeronautical industry grows and its need for bandwidth grows as well, we foresee that the industry will reuse the spectrum already allocated to it as far as possible, but this requires a holistic, compatible, harmonized and global approach not only by aviation, but also by other users.”

New regulatory approaches will also be essential in tackling the challenges of future technologies such as 6G, where services such as joint sensing and communication networks may use the same spectrum, said Baeder. Two services used by the same technology and in the same band are currently treated separately by regulation. Another challenge facing regulatory bodies in the more distant future may come with the advent of autonomous shipping, requiring globally protected spectrum for control and command purposes.

Sparrow urged convergence at the front end between active partners sharing spectrum, especially adjacent spectrum. This would allow for clearer modelling and analysis, based on real needs not assumptions, which could, in turn, be communicated into regulatory frameworks to improve spectrum harmonization.

One goal, multiple perspectives

Baeder reflected on the trade-off necessary between new technologies enabling efficient use of spectrum, including better synchronization between services and better sharing characteristics, and the protection of specific frequencies which are essential for safety of life or cannot move from a specific spectrum band.

The latter include atmospheric and earth sciences, where instruments cannot work in different frequencies, and where out of band emissions can distort or even eliminate reliable observations, stressed Holmlund, calling for increased awareness of the issue. “The only way we can move forward is to have an open and honest discussion on frequencies and not exaggerate, but explain properly the impact,” allowing technical guidelines for equipment manufacturers, for example, to limit out of band emissions.

Balancing safety against broad spectrum use by the public may come down to safety versus immediate economic interest, said Schwarz, sounding a note of caution.

In Zoghbi’s words, “we all have one goal: to make sure we are all connected and services are protected,” but we also have different views on what the future holds in terms of technology and technology timelines, balancing additional spectrum for new services against protection of people.

Many countries implement regulation in different ways or on different timelines, pointed out Pinto, which can be particularly problematic in densely populated areas or regions where different national administrations are geographically close to each other, such as Europe or Central America. “We need a better way of harmonizing national regulations with ITU guidelines as otherwise we will end up with less spectrum, not more,” he said.

Talbot agreed – even keeping within the international regulations on allocations does not work, as geographical neighbours might use spectrum for different purposes, such as mobile services or broadcasting. Two countries both exercising sovereign rights: but “spectrum does not respect borders,” so other measures may be necessary to make it work.

Summing up, Wilson focused on the increasing challenge of spectrum harmonization as growing demand continues to impact on services with safety of life or global spectrum requirements. “We are seeing increasing interference into important services, much of it coming from adjacent bands and active services.” Harmonization is also key from an economic standpoint, enabling economies of scale and a stable environment for investment. New technology can enable better and more efficient use of spectrum, but technology alone is not enough. Service layering or unlayering – even removing some allocations if not effectively utilized – may be an option. Harmonizing national regulations is critical.

Pinto concluded with a plea for a global perspective: “Spectrum licencing is a national competency, so it is difficult or controversial to change. But we as stakeholders should look for mechanisms to help ITU incentivise national regulators to take into account a global view.”


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