In late November 2019, the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19) came to a close. There was not much fanfare, but its edicts and recommendations do ensure that most precious of resources, wireless spectrum, is efficiently allocated and, just as crucially, strives to prevent interference between radio-dependent applications and between countries with common borders. A number of key agreements were signed by 3,400 delegates from 165 Member States and therefore incorporated in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Radio Regulations
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In late November 2019, the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19) came to a close. There was not much fanfare, but its edicts and recommendations do ensure that most precious of resources, wireless spectrum, is efficiently allocated and, just as crucially, strives to prevent interference between radio-dependent applications and between countries with common borders. A number of key agreements were signed by 3,400 delegates from 165 Member States and therefore incorporated in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Radio Regulations.
5G & WiFi-related announcements included:
- Additional bands for IMT identified in the 24.25-27.5 GHz, 37-43.5 GHz, 45.5-47 GHz, 47.2-48.2 and 66-71 GHz bands, which will support development of 5G mobile networks.
- Regulatory provisions revised to accommodate both indoor and outdoor WiFi networks, including Radio Local Area Networks (RLANs) for end-user radio connections to public or private core networks, such as end-user or enterprise WiFi, while limiting their interference.
Satellite communications-related announcements included:
- Protection accorded to Earth Exploration-Satellite Services (EESS) with the possibility of providing worldwide primary allocation in the 22.55-23.15 GHz band in order to allow its use for satellite tracking, telemetry and control.
- Regulations established for Non-Geostationary Satellite constellations in the fixed-satellite service. Satellite constellations based on 100s to 1,0000s of spacecraft in low-Earth orbit are becoming a credible solution for telecommunications.
- Regulatory changes introduced to allow rational, efficient and economical use of radio frequencies and associated orbits, including geostationary-satellite orbits.
- Protection of broadcasting-satellite service frequency assignments, providing a priority mechanism for developing countries to secure access to spectrum orbit resources.
- The ITU proposed spectrum resources be set aside for Earth Stations In Motion (ESIM) so that ESIMs can connect people while in planes, ships, and trains to communication links with geostationary satellites
High altitude platform-related announcements included:
- Additional frequency bands are being proposed for radio transceivers on aerial platforms, known as High Altitude Platform Systems, that can hover in the stratosphere, which then enable affordable broadband access in rural and remote areas.
Transportation communications-related announcements included:
- Resolution approved for railway radiocommunication systems that support the deployment of railway train and trackside systems to meet the needs of a high-speed railway network.
- ITU standard approved to integrate more traditional Information & Communication Technology (ICT) systems with rapidly evolving Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) to connect vehicles, improve traffic management and assist in safer driving.
- Expanded coverage and enhanced capabilities for Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).
Targeting Rural Communities and More Robust Telco Services
There are clearly a number of initiatives embedded in this announcement, and of course each one is vital to the future success of that sector, but a key theme that comes out of the conference is the renewed support and even expansion of applications in the satellite and HAPS sectors. It was almost inevitable that additional spectrum would be allocated for mobile (5G) services, but the conference put renewed effort and focus on helping the United Nations reach its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure telecom services can benefit all population segments, from remote rural communities to dense urban city centers.
HAPS have been around as a concept since 1996, but it was only with recent innovations in solar panel efficiency, autonomous avionics and antennas, lightweight composite materials, and improved battery energy density that it has started to secure commercial interest from equipment vendors and support from regulatory authorities. Solutions such as Google’s Project Loon have been prominent pioneers, but ABI Research anticipates that a number of companies will target the sector with lightweight, solar-powered aircraft and airships that can operate at an altitude of 20-25 Km.
Spectrum allocations for fixed service in 31-31.3 GHz, 38-39.5 GHz bands will be identified for worldwide use by HAPS. The existing worldwide identifications for HAPS in the bands 47.2-47.5 GHz and 47.9-48.2 GHz were also reaffirmed along with the 21.4-22 GHz and 24.25-27.5 GHz bands in the Americas.
Satellite 3.0 Rollouts
Satellite mobile broadband services are starting to come out from the shadow of mobile cellular services. Mobile satellite providers such as Iridium, ICO, Spaceway, and Globstar tried to bring a truly mobile service without borders back in the early to mid-1990s, but digital cellular technologies such as 2G Time-Division Multiple Access (TDMA), and especially 2G Global System Mobile (GSM) delivered national mobile cellular coverage as well as international roaming. Only Iridium and GlobalStar have survived, after major overhauls in their business models.
However, advances in satellite design, manufacturing, and launch service capabilities have rebooted the sector. There is particular interest in non-geostationary satellites, including mega-constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) (operating from 400 Km to 2000 Km). WRC-2019 has argued that satellite spectrum and orbital positions should allow for more flexible timelines. The ITU is still concerned about spectrum warehousing but does want to accommodate operational requirements related to the deployment of NGSO systems. Under the new regulatory regime, mobile satellite providers, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, must deploy 10% of their constellations within two years, 50% within five years, and finalize deployment within seven years.
Satellite and High-Altitude Systems Demonstrate Their Value
With these forward planning initiatives, the ITU, along with national governments and NGOs, hopes to able to deliver a range of telecom services to rural communities that is reasonably similar to those found in urban centers. Indeed, these should benefit rural communities in developed markets as much as they do in emerging markets. It is interesting times. Satellite communications platforms have substantially matured by increasing capacity, reducing operational costs, and improving service versatility. Communication Service Provider (CSPs) in developed and developing markets should be interested in their services.
In addition to the satellite platforms, we are also witnessing the maturity of HAPS. HAPS and these augmented satellite platforms will also serve to make telcos services more robust and versatile, especially in countries that are vulnerable to severe weather or geological conditions (e.g., earthquakes, volcanic eruptions) or to support increased traffic demand from a particular location (seasonal holiday locations or sporting events, etc).
While 2020 will certainly be the year of 5G, it could also be a turning point for the increased role of satellite and airborne communications systems in the economic fabric of society.