Digital transformation has become the engine of world economic and social development, and radiocommunications are the vector by which most of this transformation is taking place. They contribute directly, or as enablers, to each and every one of the Sustainable Development goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as part of its 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.
Mobile and broadcasting networks, satellites, radio relays, radars, drones, short range devices such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth are constantly providing us with a wealth of information, as well as applications, that we are using seamlessly without realizing that they all rely on one common and intangible resource: spectrum.
It took only a few years after the decisive experiments on wireless telegraphy by Alexander Popov (1895) and Guglielmo Marconi (1901) to agree on the need to globally manage this essential resource in a rational way and sign the first international treaty regulating its use, the International Radio Telegraph Convention (1906). The annex to this Convention contained the first regulations governing wireless telegraphy. These regulations have since been expanded and revised by numerous World Radio Conferences (WRCs), and are now known as the Radio Regulations.
Spectacular growth in the use of wireless communications A hundred and ten years later, we keep witnessing spectacular growth in the use of wireless communications. Innovative technological solutions using radio transmission are laying the foundations for a truly wireless world. Radio has become pervasive in our lives, from personal devices such as mobile phones and radio-controlled watches, radio headsets, to equipment for home and office networking, radio positioning systems for navigation, intelligent transport systems, intelligent cities, broadcasting through radio and television, Earth imagery and meteorological satellites, and emergency communications and disaster warning systems.
One striking example in the wireless revolution is the astounding growth of mobile communications since the service was initially deployed. In 1990, there were only about 11 million mobile subscribers worldwide. This number increased to over 300 million by the end of 1998, and it has boomed to more than 7 billion today. We are now witnessing the full deployment of the third and fourth generation (3G and 4G) mobile broadband systems, based on ITU standards known as International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT)‑2000 and IMT‑Advanced (see Figure).
Nearly 4 billion users are currently enjoying the benefits of IMT services, and the number is expected to rise to 6 billion by 2020, when large-scale development of the fifth generation (5G) will commence and accelerate the digital transformation by integrating the Internet of Things (IoT), and vertical activities like health, transportation and retail.
The framework for the development of 3G was established in 1992 at ITU’s World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC‑92), where, among other regulatory provisions, the radio-frequency spectrum bands were identified on a global basis for use by countries when deploying IMT systems.
WRC‑2000 and WRC‑07 provided the framework for 4G by opening up the 1.8 GHz and 2.6 GHz bands and the “first digital dividend” bands respectively.
For 5G, WRC-15 opened up the “second digital dividend” bands and WRC‑19 is expected to open more spectrum in the bands above 24 GHz.
The Radio Regulations have also enabled the successful development of a number of mass-market applications, like short wave and FM sound radio, analogue and digital television broadcasting, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, satellite positioning (e.g. GPS, Glonass, Galileo or Compass) and satellite television reception. Today, more than one billion people watch TV through digital terrestrial television broadcasting and a similar number through satellite dishes, in frequency bands which have been harmonized globally by the ITU Radio Regulations for many decades, since the corresponding technologies became available.
Less visible, but equally important, the Radio Regulations are the enabler of satellite imagery and Earth resource monitoring, space science and missions, meteorology, maritime and aeronautical transport and safety, civil protection and defence systems.
From the beginning, the WRC process has been one of constant improvement over the years to adjust the international regulatory framework to new technologies as they develop and enable new uses, as these new uses modify spectrum requirements.
In order to function properly, all radiocommunication systems make use of specific radio frequencies, taking advantage of their different propagation characteristics. However, these are ruled by the laws of physics, not by national borders. Consequently, as radio technology developed, the international community established a global regulatory framework, the Radio Regulations, in order to ensure harmonized use of spectrum and prevent radio interference1. Complying with this framework is an essential task for ITU Member State administrations to ensure their services obtain international recognition and are compatible with the services of other ITU Member State administrations.
The main part of the Radio Regulations lies in its Article 5, the Table of Frequency Allocations, which specifies which radiocommunication services may be used in which part of the spectrum.
These allocations are made in order to ensure that the services allocated in any particular frequency band can be used by various countries in an equitable manner without harmful interference through regulatory procedures and associated technical criteria. These are described in other Articles of the RR, in its Appendices, in the Resolutions and Recommendations adopted by WRCs and in the ITU–R Recommendations of mandatory application. The Radio Regulations are publicly available free of charge.
Article 5 frequency allocations provide a high degree of spectrum harmonization within and between Regions. This is complemented by spectrum identifications, which are not mandatory in nature, but are rapidly adopted by most countries in order to benefit from the economies of scale provided by the worldwide market. This is the case in particular, for identifications for IMT, which enabled the harmonized development of 3G and 4G broadband mobile networks and are expected to play the same role for 5G.
Since 1979, in view of the enormous demand for spectrum, the Radio Regulations have been revised and updated regularly, in order to keep pace with the rapid expansion of existing systems and new, spectrum-hungry advanced wireless technologies. The ITU World Radiocommunication Conferences are at the heart of this updating process (see Figure).
The modifications of the RR adopted by a WRC are contained in its Final Acts, which also include a draft Agenda for the following WRC, which is formally adopted by the ITU Council. The WRC process is therefore a permanent process, which is fed by:
Throughout this process, consensus is the constant practice, in order to ensure that decisions, whether binding or not, will be implemented worldwide, thus reinforcing harmonization. It also ensures that decisions will not lead to disruption to already deployed networks and services. The Radio Regulations are an international treaty, and the WRCs, which modify them, are treaty-making conferences.
Decision by consensus is the guarantee that this treaty as it evolves, will continue to be reflected in national legislation, and enforced by national governments, as they sign the Final Acts of WRCs. At WRC-15, 150 Member States present signed the Final Acts at the end of the Conference.
Building this consensus is a key requirement of the four-year preparation cycle of WRCs. This is achieved through the leadership of six regional groups which regularly convene regional preparatory meetings and develop common proposals to the conference, and by informal inter-regional coordination meetings, in addition to and in support of the preparatory process carried out in the ITU–R Study Groups and CPM.
On this foundation, careful technical, operational and regulatory studies ensure that the modifications to the Radio Regulations, introduced by WRCs, respond to rapid technological and social evolution, keep harmful interference within manageable limits under all circumstances, and maintain the right balance between the protection of incumbents and the satisfaction of emerging needs.
Thanks to this process, which has been constantly improved over the years and has now become permanent, the preparation of the next WRC starting as soon as the previous one has ended, the Radio Regulations deliver a stable and predictable global framework which ensures long-term protection of the investments of a multi-trillion dollar industry, through the universal commitment of governments and all other stakeholders. The Radio Regulations are the basis for a sustainable ecosystem which has flourished over the last 110 years and have made radiocommunications a fundamental part of today’s world.
Read more articles like this in the ITU News Magazine special edition, Celebrating the Radio Regulations.