Setting the stage for World Radio Conference in 2023
About a year from now, between November 20 and December 15, 2023, Dubai will host the next ITU World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), WRC-23, following a four-year study cycle period. You may wonder, “Why is this important to us?” To put it simply, ITU WRC-23 is where spectrum for further 5G advancements will be decided and the spectrum foundation for 6G will be set.
The upcoming WRC-23 is considering a number of mid- and low-frequency ranges important for the mobile industry for both 5G growth and the further development of 6G (or IMT-2030, as the ITU calls it). High-priority topics for the telecom industry concern the mobile use of the 3.3-3.8 GHz and 6 GHz ranges, and the revision of the UHF band 470-960 MHz. Beside these 5G-related items, the WRC-23 is also the decisive conference on the most important topic that will impact the mobile industry in the long-term, i.e., study spectrum for 6G under future agenda items for the WRC-27, focusing on the potential range of 7-15 GHz. This is essential for successful and cost-efficient 6G rollout during the 2030s with both expanded coverage and capacity via macro grid deployment.
The WRC is where the international regulations governing radio spectrum are revised and updated and where discussions take place among representatives of governments and stakeholders that use the spectrum: satellite and mobile operators, TV broadcasters, and many others. In the past, it was about accessing unused spectrum, but nowadays, it is about repurposing or sharing spectrum with those who currently hold the rights to it but are not reaching full utilization.
The WRCs have, so far, played a significant role in helping our industry achieve global harmonization of spectrum for mobile use. This includes adequate technical conditions to ensure that mobile phones can be used in virtually all countries around the world when roaming. It also creates global-level economies of scale for manufacturers of chipsets, network equipment and devices. It is important not only for the mobile industry but also for society at large and for all industries and organizations that use radio spectrum.
This upcoming WRC-23 is no exception. For us at Nokia, it will conclude the ongoing four-year cycle, during which we performed technical studies and simulations. Findings of these studies will help define how 5G will use some frequency bands, how its evolution will impact other services, and what rules need to be defined for reducing potential interference between services in the same or adjacent bands. Decisions taken in WRC-23 will enable 5G deployments in those bands. Looking forward, however, the most critical decision the WRC will take next year concerns subjects for the new study cycle that concludes four years later, at WRC-27. It is the occasion for the telecom community to define, based on proposals put forward by industry and administrations, the spectrum-related subjects for 6G that need to be addressed during this period.
Having set the frame, below are some considerations how the outcomes of these conferences are likely to impact society, its digital evolution and the expected benefits we see from securing more spectrum for the mobile industry at both WRC-23 and WRC-27.
Improving rural coverage
The sub-700 MHz spectrum plays an important role for both rural and urban environments and securing additional spectrum in this range for the EMEA region will help reduce the digital inequality between rural and urban. The reduced bandwidth of this spectrum is compensated by its better propagation characteristics, efficiently providing enhanced outdoor and outdoor-to-indoor mobile coverage. Moreover, in sparsely populated rural areas, it will enable higher data speeds in a cost-effective manner, and thus access to mobile services comparable to that in urban zones.
Lastly, in some countries where low bands are already used for 5G, accessing supplementary spectrum below 700 MHz will improve performance of 5G services in both cities and countryside, and it could be used as a blanket coverage in the future for 6G.
Expanding and improving 5G coverage
Across the world, 5G has been deployed using a mix of frequency bands with different characteristics and bandwidths, leading to disparities in the consumer’s experience. For many, where new spectrum was not sufficient or available in a timely fashion, the performance experienced with 5G services hasn’t been dramatically better than with 4G/LTE. To assure an improved user experience – and to cope with the constant growth in mobile data traffic – up to 2 GHz of mid-band spectrum is needed by the end of the decade for 5G and getting more such spectrum is a major point to address at WRC-23.
There are some promising areas for finding the additional spectrum. One of the most important subjects at this WRC is the upper 6 GHz range, which holds promise for mobile operators. We already talked about this spectrum in a previous blog where we explained how 6 GHz can help ensure the delivery of many 5G features such as ultra-broadband and ultra-low latency. In terms of the evolution of future communications networks from 5G to 5G-Advanced to 6G, it holds the most promise for expanding and supporting ubiquitous connectivity in the 2025-2030 period. Everyone from device manufacturers to network equipment suppliers to operators is ready to start using this spectrum band as soon as it becomes available.
Along with harmonizing the 3.5 GHz range across the globe, additional opportunities for some countries come with the 4.9 GHz band that can be used by public and/or private 5G networks, taking advantage of the already broad ecosystem available for this 3GPP standardized band. Depending on the region, several uses can be envisaged: as new spectrum for the expansion of 5G coverage for existing networks, as an alternative initial band when other mainstream bands are not available, or for the provision of localized industrial private wireless services. To us, making use of this 3GPP harmonized band where needed will open up opportunities for further digitization for consumers and businesses.
Further spectrum for 6G
One learning from the introduction of 5G was that using the existing network site infrastructure with new spectrum to provide sufficient coverage is the key to providing consistent and successful services that users acknowledge as a generational leap experience. Carrier bandwidth too must be wide enough to deliver the generational leap in services. The C-band (3.3-3.8 GHz) certainly has both properties – providing sufficient bandwidth while being able to be deployed on existing infrastructure grids – where the mmWave bands did not have that advantage. As such, 5G deployments using mmWave as the only band initially did not experience uptake as quickly as originally expected.
Identifying and securing the right spectrum for 6G is essential if it is to successfully and cost-efficiently rollout during the 2030s with both expanded coverage and capacity. Taking note of the above learning from 5G, we consider spectrum in the 7-15 GHz range to have the required properties to successfully qualify as the initial 6G spectrum range. As frequency bands within this range are not yet identified to be used by mobile technologies such as 6G, at Nokia, we consider that they should be studied during the 2023-2027 study cycle, with a final decision to be taken at WRC-27. That would enable the availability of such spectrum in time for the 6G introduction. Further developments of mobile technologies promise to efficiently make the most use of 7-15 GHz range, taking advantage of their wider bandwidth to address services requirements while better addressing the coverage challenge. There is a long journey towards 6G that starts now, and our efforts need to focus on getting the right spectrum that will assure its full success.
The year ahead promises to be challenging as countries in all regions define their positions for WRC-23. Studies are in their final stage and options are defined. It is now a matter of evaluating them and deciding the positions to take for the future harmonized use of spectrum across the globe. For the mobile industry, WRC-23 is the final time to make sufficient spectrum available in the mid-term for the development of 5G. It also paves the way for WRC-27, which will be the first industry milestone for 6G, laying the foundation for the spectrum it will use and, thus, the beginning of our long journey to 6G.