Building upon the foundations of WRC-15 to support the future of 4G and 5G

Brett HeadshotThis blog written by Brett Tarnutzer, GSMA’s Head of Spectrum, is the first in a six-part series discussing the key topics of GSMA Ministerial Programme hosted on the GSMA blog. 

The world’s governments agreed on vital extra mobile broadband spectrum when they met at the UN’s World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva in November 2015 (WRC-15). Over four weeks of difficult and complex negotiations, they re-enforced the building blocks of 4G and sketched out plans that will help power 5G. But these foundations now need to be built upon.

So why does more mobile spectrum matter so much? Put simply, it means faster mobile broadband services, in more places, that is affordable and can support growing consumer demand for bandwidth heavy apps like video. By effectively providing additional access to mobile spectrum, governments play a central role in the development of mobile broadband services.

The real achievement of WRC-15 was to prop up the foundations of 4G that were starting to crack under the weight of consumer demand. In the next five years, global mobile data traffic is expected to grow ten-fold. However, what governments achieved was the agreement of new mobile bands in principle. A lot more needs to be done before these bands can be used in live mobile services.

Kick starting new 4G bands
The vital first step is to ensure the new bands are supported in a wide range of affordable mobile devices. This will involve careful international negotiations between governments on coordinated band plans so the same devices can be used on a larger scale – thus lowering manufacturing costs.

Governments then need to plan when and how to make the new mobile bands available in their countries. Circumstances vary – some will need bands more urgently than others due to different levels of data usage. Others will prioritise lower frequency ‘coverage’ bands to augment mobile broadband services in rural areas and deeper inside buildings. Regardless, governments should carefully plan their timeframes, and how to move any existing users in the bands, and then incorporate the findings into their spectrum roadmap.

Planning future 5G bands
WRC-15 also saw governments agree a list of spectrum bands to study for potential future 5G use – they will need to agree the bands at the next WRC in 2019. With 5G services expected to form a central component in everything from virtual reality to driverless cars and the Internet of Things – not to mention considerably faster mobile broadband – it is essential that governments begin studying potential bands immediately.

This planning needs to consider the different 5G use cases and their differing spectrum requirements. For example, high frequency ‘millimetre microwaves’ could enable very high data speeds but will only cover small areas so won’t suit all 5G applications (e.g. the Internet of Things or connected cars). Furthermore, the bands being studied for WRC-19 are already used for different wireless services so governments need to consider how these can continue to be accommodated. Early planning is vital to help meet 5G deployment timeframes and ensure the resulting services meet expectations and are supported in a wide variety of affordable devices.

WRC-15 was a crucial first-step in supporting the growth of 4G services and the emergence of 5G. However, governments and the mobile industry need to work together to build on this foundation. If carefully managed, the mobile revolution won’t just continue, it will accelerate, thus driving ever increasing socioeconomic benefits for countries and their citizens worldwide.

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