Does the outcome of WRC-23 Agenda Item 1.5 signify an end to a harmonised approach to sub-1GHz spectrum in Europe?

Does the outcome of WRC-23 Agenda Item 1.5 signify an end to a harmonised approach to sub-1GHz spectrum in Europe?

As the dust settles following the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23), spectrum regulators and users are taking stock of what the outcomes mean for them. Agenda Item 1.5 focused on the spectrum use and needs of existing services in Region 1 (broadly EMEA) in the 470-960 MHz band, and considered possible regulatory actions in the 470-694 MHz band.

Across the EU and much of Region 1, the 470-694 MHz band is used for broadcasting, specifically, providing television services via Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT). Agenda Item 1.5 was driven by a reduction in the demand for terrestrial broadcast television services and growing demand for mobile broadband.

Countries across Region 1 show large differences in the demand for these two services – Saudi Arabia for example is in the process of refarming spectrum in the 600 MHz band from broadcast to mobile, while countries such as Italy have only recently completed upgrade programmes for their DTT platforms. Even at an EU level these differences are still significant – there has been a decrease of approximately 3% between 2015 and 2019 across the EU,[1] but countries such as Croatia, Greece, and Portugal have seen overall increases. As a result, reaching consensus on the Agenda Item, as is required in ITU proceedings, was expected to be difficult.

In achieving consensus, the resulting spectrum allocations are far more complex than has previously been the case in the band. The key outcomes from Agenda Item 1.5 are:

  • The 470-694 MHz band retains its primary allocation to the broadcast service in Region 1,[2] but now has six additional footnotes (only two of which are relevant to most EU countries).
  • Alongside the existing broadcasting allocation, all EU countries (with the exception of Spain and Italy) now also have a footnoted secondary allocation to the land mobile service,[3] i.e., at a lower priority than the broadcast allocation, but an equal priority to the PMSE (Programme Making and Special Events) allocation.
  • There is a condition attached to this secondary allocation – any deployment of the mobile service needs to be co-ordinated with neighbouring countries under Article 9.21 and in line with the Geneva 2006 Agreement (GE06).[4]
  • The issue has been proposed for further review as a preliminary Agenda Item at WRC-31.

In theory, compliance with GE06 means that countries who continue to operate broadcast services will not, without agreement, be subject to more interference from a neighbouring country that deploys mobile services than if it had continued with broadcast services.[5]

However, coordinating usage during previous replanning exercises, for example, clearance of broadcast services from the 700 MHz band, was a significant undertaking. There is an expectation that countries engage with the coordination process. As such, a country that chooses to continue with broadcast services may still have to participate in a significant coordination effort if neighbouring countries deploy mobile services.

Challenges for mobile network deployment

For countries that wish to implement mobile services, a requirement to limit mobile network field strengths to be compliant with GE06 may not be prohibitively difficult, noting that GE06 shares frequencies between countries in border regions. However, as mobile networks will not be able to request protection from the higher priority broadcast service, a key difficulty will be deploying networks that can cope with existing broadcast field strengths. In practice, this may limit deployments to non-border regions, i.e., those in which broadcast field strengths are lower, unless significant terrain shielding is present.

There are network design approaches that could mitigate these issues, for example, deploying supplementary downlink (SDL) in the 600 MHz band (noting that to do so would require a new 3GPP band configuration to be devised). However, deploying too novel a solution risks losing the benefits of standardisation.[6]

The Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG)’s opinion[7] on the future use of the band noted that non-broadcast services could have been deployed prior to WRC-23 using the flexibility allowed for in the UHF Decision,[8] but that no Member State had done so. As such, it may be that the challenges of deploying non-broadcast services in the band, at least historically, have outweighed the demand for additional mobile spectrum. In any case, the secondary allocation does further support flexibility[9] for countries named in the footnote to consider inland or localised deployments of mobile services, provided these challenges can be overcome. Having a specific allocation may also encourage countries to consider non-broadcast usage more seriously.

What next?

Historically, the EU has often taken a harmonised approach to spectrum management across Member States, e.g., spectrum for 5G being made available in 700 MHz, C-Band, and 26 GHz. Decisions taken under Agenda Item 1.5 now represent a barrier to such harmonised approaches, particularly for sub-1GHz mobile spectrum. For example, while a dedicated 600 MHz IMT band across the EU would not have been expected given the differing positions of Member States, the Radio Regulations may now not provide a sufficiently strong legal basis on which to do so.[10]

Some countries in Region 1 are likely to want to take advantage of the mobile allocation – Switzerland for example already ceased transmissions from its DTT network, while Saudi Arabia is refarming the 600 MHz band. Some countries in the EU, such as the Nordic countries, have been vocal of their desire to deploy mobile services in the 600 MHz band. More generally, there is a growing ecosystem of equipment for the 600 MHz band, and consumer expectations of having ubiquitous access to high-quality mobile broadband are growing.

This does not force the EU to take action (indeed the issue will likely be revisited during WRC-31 anyway), but it does potentially place it in a difficult position. The UHF Decision already allows flexibility for Member States, and this flexibility is reiterated by the mobile allocation. However, without a harmonised position across the EU, there is a risk of missed economies of scale and the practical issues of countries transitioning in isolation, e.g., interference. Conversely, moving towards a harmonised approach, footnote issue aside, highlights various technical and political considerations, such as the need to balance the social and cultural benefits of broadcast television with the need to provide high-speed connectivity.

It is clear that the large differences in demand and the non-standard allocations across the bloc are going to make sub-1GHz spectrum complicated to manage, at both a European and regional level. The technical, political, and cultural issues at play are complex and require a holistic and considered approach. Access Partnership is closely tracking the issue and, through its expertise across the technical, policy, and regulatory sectors, is uniquely placed to provide necessary support on the issues raised.

Please contact Oliver Mercer for more information at [email protected].

[1] COVID-19 brought an increase in television viewing in many countries and it is not yet fully clear if this increase will be sustained.
[2] 470-694 MHz also has a secondary allocation to the land mobile service by footnote, specifically for use by PMSE equipment.
[3] Note that the allocation does not include identification for IMT.
[4] GE06 set out and agreed the usage of the signatory countries, and defined a process by which countries can change and agree usage in future.
[5] Studies created under Agenda Item 1.5 did not agree on a set of protection criteria, or a set of separation distances, between IMT and broadcast services. There are concerns on how accurately the GE06 methodology can model interference from mobile networks, and the high variation in results across the studies limited the extent to which useful generally applicable results could be determined.
[6] 600 MHz deployments elsewhere have used paired spectrum.
[7] RSPG, 2023. (Draft) RSPG Opinion Strategy on the future use of the frequency band 470-694 MHz beyond 2030 in the EU. Available at: https://radio-spectrum-policy-group.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2023-06/RSPG23-021final-draft_RSPG_Opinion_on_UHF_beyond_2030.pdf
[8] Deployment of non-broadcast services would either be under Article 4.4 or through agreements with neighbours.
[9] A secondary allocation within the Radio Regulations provides additional rights and protections beyond the flexibility allowed for in the UHF Decision, i.e., non-interference, non-protection operation under Article 4.4, or compliant with bilateral agreements.
[10] Mobile services could be deployed under the secondary allocation across much of the EU, provided third country broadcast services were protected or agreements were made otherwise. For Spain and Italy, the lack of a secondary allocation would require deployment of mobile networks either under Article 4.4 or supported by bilaterial agreements. Operation under Article 4.4 would be a risky approach given the non-interference, non-protection basis under which mobile services would have to operate. There would be no requirement for neighbouring countries to develop a bilateral agreement – GE06 would not require them to do so as services to be entered into the plan must be in conformity with the Radio Regulations, i.e., have an allocation.

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