How WRC 19 Can Help Bridge the Digital Divide
Rarely a day goes by without a senior government official in the United States or elsewhere focusing on how to best address the digital divide: an important global goal to ensure that no one is left out of the benefits of the digital world. Accordingly, a significant amount of governmental resources are focused on enabling a fully connected world, where no one — no matter how remote their location — is denied access to the digital economy. Increased connectivity is particularly important to the most rural and remote portions of the world to enable economic development and access to critical services including healthcare and education. Taking appropriate actions at the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC 19) on spectrum use can enable the deployment of advanced broadband services throughout the world, while ensuring there is additional capacity to support the promise of 5G.
Bridging the digital divide has been an ongoing struggle since the start of telecommunications, with it growing increasingly in importance as the role of the internet increases. However, the focus on a solution by governments has been aimed at primarily either deploying terrestrial wireline or wireless services to meet user needs. Such actions have included universal service subsidies, enabling the creation of municipal or local government owned and operated Wi-Fi networks and, most recently, the focus by governments on limiting or eliminating local laws that may slow down terrestrial wireless deployment. Of course, these solutions have increased connectivity some, but still have proven unsuccessful where there are true economic and geographic issues associated with deployment. This is the case even when funding is made available — since this is generally a temporary solution. The economics of deploying and operating a terrestrial network — whether wireless or wireline — in sparsely populated areas, rarely makes economic sense.
Another solution that governments have tried is to provide terrestrial wireless service providers with access to additional spectrum. The belief, though faulty, is that if terrestrial providers are given greater access to spectrum, they will deploy in rural areas. While providing additional spectrum access has certainly helped improve services in urban areas, where the economics make sense, in less populated areas there is still no meaningful deployment because the economics are not there. Accordingly, whatever the incentive that governments provide, it is clear that the majority of beneficiaries of increased terrestrial broadband services have been in those in the most populated regions of the globe, leaving a digital divide.
At the same time, the satellite industry has continued to increase the provision of broadband services to all areas of the globe, including to the most remote areas, without the benefits of many of these same incentives. Further, the satellite industry has successfully advanced the state of satellite technology to meet user demands for high speed broadband — today deploying services as fast as 100 Mbps. Because of the global reach of satellite and the lack of need of local infrastructure, this has resulted in broadband services being made available at cost-effective rates to even the most rural and remote areas of the globe.
Of course, just like terrestrial services, the satellite industry is seeing a dramatic uptake in the demand for its high-speed services. And, just like the terrestrial industry, the satellite industry needs access to additional spectrum to meet this demand, especially for 5G. The question of how additional spectrum will be made available for the terrestrial wireless and satellite industries for 5G is front and center at WRC 19 under Agenda Item 1.13. Under this Agenda Item, the WRC is examining what spectrum will be made for terrestrial wireless 5G services and what, if any protections, will be made for satellite 5G and other services in these same bands.
We are at a critical time with access to broadband being even more important to ensure that all are connected and can take advantage of the digital economy. As we move forward looking at solutions, we must focus on a spectrum policy that provides both the haves and have nots access to the digital world. This can be accomplished by ensuring that domestic and international spectrum policies do not neglect providing adequate spectrum for use by the commercial satellite industry.
Accordingly, as the WRC considers Agenda Item 1.13, it must ensure that satellite has sufficient access to the spectrum under consideration in order to be able to expand its broadband services globally. Of course, this need must be balanced with the requirement for additional spectrum to meet terrestrial wireless demand. While balance does not require equality, it does require that the spectrum made available for satellite services provides appropriate protections internationally since satellite communications do not stop at the border.
The way forward is fairly simple: governments must ensure that both services have access to sufficient spectrum. To this end, where possible, sharing should be enabled, with protections for both services addressed internationally. Further, in some cases, where sharing is not possible, such as where satellite user terminals are operating with 5G, there will be a need for dedicated spectrum for satellite services internationally. Currently, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is considering making 8 GHz out of approximately 64 GHz under consideration for terrestrial 5G available for satellite on a dedicated basis.
WRC 19 provides a true opportunity to enable the digital divide to be bridged for 5G and broadband services. To be successful, regulators will need to carefully balance the needs of the satellite and terrestrial wireless industry and make decisions that will result in a win-win. This includes adopting protections internationally so that the satellite industry has access to an adequate amount of spectrum it needs to meet the demands of its users, including those in the most remote corners of the globe. Failure to take such action international level at WRC 19 will ensure that the digital divide continues to exist into the next decade.
Jennifer A. Manner is the senior vice president of regulatory affairs at EchoStar Corporation and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. She has more than two decades of experience in telecommunications and spectrum policy including holding senior positions at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EchoStar or Georgetown.