Nº 1 2012 > Conference overview

World Radiocommunication Conference 2012

Global challenges, global opportunities
François Rancy, Director, ITU Radiocommunication Bureau

World Radiocommunication Conference 2012World Radiocommunication Conference 2012François Rancy, Director, ITU Radiocommunication BureauWorld Radiocommunication Conference 2012
François Rancy, Director, ITU Radiocommunication Bureau

The World Radiocommunication Conference 2012 (WRC‑12) will open in Geneva for almost four weeks, from 23 January to 17 February. More than 3500 delegates representing the ITU Member States are expected to participate in this long-awaited conference — the previous conference having taken place in 2007. Observers from the private sector and international organizations will also attend WRC‑12.

ITU world radiocommunication conferences, held every three or four years, are mandated to review and revise the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources. The agenda of a world radiocommunication conference may include any other question of a worldwide character within the competence of the conference.

The unprecedented number of proposals (more than 1700) addressing the various items on the WRC‑12 agenda cover almost all radio services and applications, and illustrate the importance of this conference to governments and businesses.

The conference, which will pave the way for long-term investments in spectrum over the next 20 years, will be the culmination of an unprecedented effort to build consensus through four years of intensive preparations by all stakeholders. These preparations will help to ensure that the decisions of the conference are agreed by all ITU Member States, and applied and enforced in all 193 countries of the Union.

Preparatory work

The preparatory effort by the ITU membership within the study groups of the ITU Radiocommunication Sector 
(ITU–R) concluded in February 2011 with the second and final session of the Conference Preparatory Meeting (CPM), which adopted the “CPM report on technical, operational and regulatory/ procedural matters to be considered by WRC‑12”. This 700‑page comprehensive report contains the basis and background information to be used by ITU Member States in formulating their proposals to the conference. Each agenda item was analysed in detail by the relevant ITU–R groups, and the report suggests methods and options for addressing the subjects raised in the conference agenda.

Another essential background document for the conference is the “Report on the activities of the Radiocommunication Sector”, prepared by the Radiocommunication Bureau. This reflects the Bureau’s experience in applying the Radio Regulations, and includes a report on the activities of the Radio Regulations Board.

An intensive preparatory programme was conducted by the following regional telecommunication organizations: the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT), the Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG), the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL), and the Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications (RCC). Coordinated proposals prepared by these regional groups have been submitted to the conference, and will greatly facilitate consensus building on the various issues to be discussed.

ITU organized three information meetings — in 2009, 2010 and 2011 — which gave participants the opportunity to exchange views, and get a better understanding of the draft common proposals and positions of the regional groups and other concerned entities, including international organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization and the World Meteorological Organization.

The diligent preparatory activities undertaken by administrations and regional groups, supported by international organizations, the private sector and the Bureau, are the building blocks that will help WRC‑12 to successfully address the needs and concerns of spectrum users.

WRC‑12 agenda

The scope and complexity of the WRC‑12 agenda make it impossible to consider all the items in an article as brief as this. And in summarizing the main topics to be dealt with by the conference, the specific concerns and interests of some groups or entities will inevitably be neglected. With those caveats in mind, I would say that, among its 33 agenda items, WRC‑12 will focus on:

  • the review and possible revision of the international regulatory framework for radiocommunications, in order to reflect in the Radio Regulations the increasing convergence of radio services arising from the rapid evolution of information and communication technologies (ICT), and to adapt to new and potentially disruptive technologies such as software-defined and cognitive radio systems or short-range devices;
  • the management of satellite orbits and associated spectrum resources, for which the increasing demand may soon exceed current availability;
  • the allocation of scarce radio-frequency spectrum to provide new opportunities for radiocommunication services, including those for the safety and security of maritime and aeronautical transport, as well as those dedicated to scientific purposes related to the environment, and to disaster prediction, mitigation and relief;
  • the introduction and development of mobile broadband and other advanced technologies, including the use of the digital dividend resulting from the switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting and the development of advanced digital satellite broadcasting applications.

Other topical subjects to be addressed include science, radiodetermination and radionavigation-satellite matters. The conference also has the task of identifying items for the agenda of the next conference, which is scheduled to take place in 2015.

Regulatory matters

Can the current international regulatory framework adequately meet the changing requirements for radiocommunication spectrum in a way that allows innovative technologies to be implemented in a timely manner? The conference is expected to answer that question. The corresponding agenda item aims at addressing changes to the Radio Regulations that will make them more responsive to new technological developments and convergence. Discussions on this subject started in WRC‑03, and it is hoped that they will be concluded at WRC‑12.

One of the most complex topics regarding satellite regulations that the conference is likely to encounter concerns a series of procedures, processes and provisions that no longer seem to be aligned with the principles on which they were based. This concerns, in particular, the principle of equitable access contained in Article 44 of the ITU Constitution. The procedures in the spotlight include those related to the processes for publication, coordination, notification, recording, bringing into use, suspension and due diligence applicable to satellite networks. Voluminous and intricate proposals are tabled, and each proposed change in the procedures could affect current and future satellite operations. This item is likely to occupy the conference throughout its duration, and the reports by the Radiocommunication Bureau and the Radio Regulations Board will help to move these discussions forward.

The 22.0 GHz band is one of the most favourable frequency bands for advanced digital satellite broadcasting applications, which require larger bandwidth capacity than ever needed before. These applications include ultra-high definition television, three-dimensional television, digital multimedia video information systems, multi-channel high definition television, large‑screen digital imagery, and extremely high resolution imagery. These applications have been extensively studied in ITU–R to enhance the broadcasting service. Despite the complexity of this area, the conference is likely to make permanent arrangements for use of the 21.4–22 GHz band by the broadcasting-satellite service, to facilitate use of this band for advanced digital satellite broadcasting applications which require larger bandwidth capacity.

Digital dividend

At WRC‑07, the band 790–862 MHz was allocated to the mobile service in Region 1 (Africa and Europe), complementing previous allocations to that service in Regions 2 (Americas) and 3 (Asia and Australasia), and was identified for international mobile telecommunications (IMT) worldwide. At that time, concerns were raised about the protection of services (mainly broadcasting and aeronautical radionavigation services) that were already allocated in this frequency band in the event that neighbouring administrations would implement mobile service. WRC‑12 will therefore consider the results of sharing studies in this band to ensure the adequate protection of the services involved, and take appropriate action.

In an unprecedented effort to resolve this difficult problem, the administrations of CEPT and RCC have adopted a pragmatic approach by developing and concluding a series of bilateral frequency coordination agreements that are expected to smooth out the opposing views which had initially been expressed on the compatibility between the mobile and the aeronautical radionavigation services in this band.

The studies and discussions on this agenda item have also highlighted the need in a number of Region 1 countries to urgently review the WRC‑07 allocation to the mobile service in the UHF band to face the growing demand for mobile broadband. Pressure is therefore likely to grow in favour of a worldwide mobile allocation of the 700 MHz band, which is being considered in Regions 2 and 3 for the digital dividend.

Aviation and maritime safety

The aeronautical community is seeking to facilitate the introduction of new aeronautical mobile systems in the bands 112–117.975 MHz, 960–1 164 MHz and 5 000–5 030 MHz. These systems provide radio links that are critical for the safety and regularity of flights, and surface communications at airports. The ITU–R compatibility studies showed that sharing is generally possible.

The use of the 1.5/1.6 GHz bands by the aeronautical mobile-satellite (route) service has priority with regard to other mobile-satellite service systems. This is required to ensure interference-free communications with aircraft, taking into account the safety of life aspects of such links. At present, this priority is established through multilateral or bilateral frequency coordination meetings between mobile-satellite service operators. Proposals to WRC‑12 suggest additional procedures to resolve concerns that have been expressed about the ability of this practice to accommodate aeronautical requirements.

WRC‑12 will consider spectrum requirements and possible regulatory actions, including the identification of globally harmonized spectrum, in order to support the safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems in the non-segregated airspace used by civil aviation. Although unmanned aircraft systems have traditionally been used in segregated airspace where separation from other air traffic can be assured, administrations expect broad deployment of unmanned aircraft systems in non-segregated airspace alongside manned aircraft.

The development of unmanned aircraft systems is based on recent technological advances in aviation, electronics and structural materials, making the economics of unmanned aircraft system operations more favourable, particularly for repetitive, routine and long-haul and long-duration applications. The required spectrum will be used for command and control of unmanned aircraft, for relay of air-traffic control communications, and for relay of sense and avoid data. The unmanned aircraft systems will be composed of a terrestrial component (radio links between the unmanned aircraft and its control station) and a satellite component (radio links between satellite and unmanned aircraft control station, and between satellite and unmanned aircraft).

The main topic to be discussed under the terrestrial component is possible new allocations to the aeronautical mobile (route) service in all or some portions of the bands 5 000–5 150 MHz and 15.4–15.5 GHz. The main topics relating to the satellite component are, first, the use of communication links within existing allocations to the aeronautical mobile-satellite (route) service, and second, the use of existing fixed-satellite service, mobile-satellite service and aeronautical mobile-satellite service allocations for communication links between the unmanned aircraft and satellite, and between the unmanned aircraft control station and satellite. There is a general understanding of the pressing need for allocations for unmanned aircraft systems, particularly for the terrestrial component, and the discussion may well centre on the exact band and amount of spectrum.

Concerning maritime safety, WRC‑12 is expected to adopt special measures to enhance maritime safety systems for ships and ports. Enhancements are proposed in three main areas to:

  • provide satellite detection of signals from automatic identification systems on board ships (by adopting a new allocation to the mobile-satellite service around 156 MHz for satellite detection of automatic identification system signals, to provide global ship-tracking and enhance search and rescue);
  • improve the broadcasting of safety and security information for ships and ports (by making a worldwide allocation to the maritime mobile service in the 495–505 kHz band as well as a regional allocation in 510–525 kHz band in Region 2 — which would enhance transmission of safety and security information in ports and coastal waters);
  • improve VHF communications for port operations and ship movement (it is planned to revise Appendix 18 of the Radio Regulations in order to implement new digital technologies in the band 156–174 MHz and increase the number of simplex channels to make more channels available for the ports with heavy traffic where communications are congested).

Given the existing situation, the global maritime community has agreed on special measures to enhance maritime safety systems for ships and ports, recognizing that additional satellite channels may be required to enhance and accommodate global ship tracking capabilities. Everyone is keen to agree on the proposed methods and options.


Several WRC‑12 agenda items are related to important environmental topics, in particular the use of ICT in combating climate change and mitigating its effects, and in predicting natural disasters and facilitating relief efforts.

Since the 1970s, interest in and use of oceanographic radar operating in the 3 to 50 MHz range has increased significantly. Preparatory work has identified potential spectrum allocations in terms of both compatibility with other users and effectiveness of ocean measurements. The need for additional data to mitigate the effects of disasters, including tsunamis, to understand climate change, and to ensure safe maritime travel has led to the consideration of the operational use of oceanographic radar networks on a global basis. Increased reliance on the data from these systems for maritime safety and disaster response, as well as for oceanographic, climatological and meteorological operations, has driven the need to improve the regulatory status of the spectrum used by oceanographic radars while taking into account the protection of existing allocated services. The ITU membership seems to fully support making allocations for this application.

Long-range lightning detection using observations near 10 kHz has been performed since 1939, originally with a labour-intensive system for measuring the direction from which signals were received. Since 1987, there has been an automated system to derive strike locations: a distributed network of ground-based sensors can locate the origin of the lightning strike, using the time differences between the arrival of the lightning emission at the individual sensor sites. The maximum spectral emissions from lightning strikes are between 9 and 20 kHz. At these frequencies, the sky waves reflected off the ionosphere propagate for long distances with relatively little attenuation. It is thus possible to receive the emissions from a lightning strike at thousands of kilometres from the strike location. The conference will consider the possibility of an allocation in the frequency range below 20 kHz for passive systems for lightning detection in the meteorological aids service.

Operational non-geostationary meteorological satellite (MetSat) systems now use the band 7 750–7 850 MHz to gather instrument data to dedicated earth stations with a bandwidth of up to 63 MHz. The measurements and observations performed by the MetSat systems provide the data used in operational meteorology, climate monitoring and detection of global climatic changes. The data have significantly improved operational meteorology, in particular with respect to numerical weather prediction.

The next generation of non-geostationary MetSat systems will have to provide continuity of data, aligned to the measurements and observations performed by the current systems. These future systems will also perform additional and higher-resolution measurements and observations of meteorological and climate parameters, requiring much higher data rates and bandwidth as compared to current systems. The necessary bandwidth for future non-geostationary MetSat systems to fulfil those requirements would be up to 150 MHz. The conference is expected to support the corresponding extension of bandwidth.

Advanced technology

The conference will consider the need for regulatory action to foster the development of advanced wireless systems and applications, such as software-defined radio, cognitive radio systems, short-range devices, fixed wireless systems above 71 GHz, gateway links for high-altitude platform stations, and electronic news gathering. The Radio Regulations, in their current form, are generally considered to provide an appropriate framework for the development of these systems and applications. Specific requirements can be addressed through the standardization work of the ITU–R study groups.

Goodwill and international cooperation

Previous world radiocommunication conferences have successfully provided for timely enhancements to the Radio Regulations to cope with technical and regulatory developments, and to address the needs of the ITU membership for the allocation, management and use of the radio-frequency spectrum and orbit resources. In keeping with the tradition of goodwill and international cooperation which has always prevailed under these circumstances, I am convinced that WRC‑12 will be another successful milestone in the history of the Union.


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