Today’s spectrum is like Interstate 405 in Los Angeles—gridlocked under the sheer weight of traffic. We desperately need innovative approaches to ensure efficient and equitable spectrum use. Regulators across the globe have risen to the challenge, and there are some highly creative examples of efficient spectrum allocation.
Following International Telecommunication Union (ITU) guidelines and band plans is essential to ensure an optimal outcome. However, measuring whether an innovative idea has an optimal result is critical to ensure spectrum and economic efficiency.
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ITU guidelines and band plans
The ITU’s guidelines and band plans help promote global spectrum innovation. They ensure that new technologies can be deployed efficiently and harmoniously across regions and countries. They also provide a framework for balancing spectrum users’ diverse needs and interests.
Several ITU documents facilitate global innovation.
The ITU’s 5G - Fifth generation of mobile technologies benefits global spectrum innovation by addressing consumer-driven development, international standards, technological challenges, and future telecommunications advancements.
The ITU’s Digital Dividend is an overview of the transition from analog to digital broadcasting and the implications for spectrum management. The resulting freed-up spectrum can enhance broadcasting services and be repurposed for advanced wireless services like mobile broadband.
The ITU’s National Table of Frequency Allocations helps regulators align national spectrum policies with international standards. The document includes best practices for maximizing efficiency and provides guidance on re-farming spectrum.
Examples of innovative spectrum allocation practices
Using ITU guidelines, regulators across the globe are adopting innovative approaches to spectrum allocation and sharing.
The USA: the FCC’s spectrum auctions and dynamic spectrum access
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) efficiently allocates spectrum resources and generates significant revenue streams through spectrum auctions and dynamic spectrum access.
Spectrum auctions ensure spectrum resources are used by whoever values them most and can put them to the most productive use. As part of a competitive bidding process, the highest bidder wins the right to use a particular frequency band. Depending on market and economic considerations, the FCC implements one of several types of auctions.
Auctions include a conventional system, such as a simultaneous multiple-round auction, or a more elaborate design, such as incentive auctions. An incentive auction repurposes spectrum frequencies and involves altering the spectrum license parameters, such as bandwidth, geographic scope, and usage rules. The auction pays existing licensees to relinquish their licenses, which are then re-farmed.
Dynamic spectrum access permits flexible, efficient, and opportunistic spectrum use. It involves multiple users using the same spectrum at different times and locations, depending on the availability of the frequency and who is a priority user at a given time. Spectrum-sharing frameworks are the foundation of dynamic spectrum access as they organize how, when, and where different tiers of users share spectrum. This method is advantageous in bands where frequency allocation is complex.
The European Union: harmonized spectrum allocation for 5G networks
Globally, 5G is vital for economic growth, competitiveness, and innovation. In Europe specifically, harmonizing spectrum allocation for 5G is critical for ensuring seamless cross-border communication, fostering a single digital market, and enabling economies of scale.
The EU achieved efficient spectrum harmonization for 5G. On a micro level, the member states established cross-border coordination and technical conditions to ensure efficient spectrum use to avoid interference. Each state developed a roadmap for 5G implementation while considering EU-wide coordination. On a macro level, the European Commission’s 5G Action Plan set out a blueprint for EU countries to coordinate the introduction of 5G networks.
The EU also laid the technical foundations for harmonized spectrum allocation by creating the ‘pioneer bands’ for 5G, which are essential for providing a mix of coverage and capacity.
- The 700 MHz band: reassigned from broadcasting to wireless
- The 3.5 GHz band: provides the capacity for 5G networks in densely populated areas
- The 26 GHz band: offers high capacity and speed but with limited coverage. It is suitable for dense urban areas and specific applications like industrial uses.
South Korea: early adoption and efficient spectrum allocation for 5G
South Korea has shown global leadership by being an early adopter of 5G. The national strategy provided funding for research and development and focused on accelerating 5G through commercialization.
The South Korean Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT) also ensured efficient spectrum allocation for 5G networks by conducting spectrum auctions in the 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz bands: a competitive and fair way of allocating spectrum among the country’s mobile operators. Spectrum was priced to encourage investment in 5G networks—balancing revenue generation with the need for affordable spectrum access.
The early adoption of 5G in South Korea has been a catalyst for economic growth, as the country has used the technology in smart cities, digital health, autonomous vehicles, and immersive media. The widespread uptake of 5G has also promoted innovation through the development and exporting of 5G technology and equipment.
Australia: innovative use of spectrum sharing in rural and remote areas
Australia’s geography means the country has unique spectrum challenges. To provide connectivity in remote areas, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) had to design innovative strategies to ensure efficient spectrum use while addressing these areas’ connectivity needs.
Australia’s regulator implemented a geographical spectrum-sharing initiative, allowing different uses of the same spectrum in other locations. It also allows multiple users to access the same spectrum bands (under certain conditions). These approaches are particularly beneficial in rural and remote areas where the demand for spectrum is lower than in urban areas.
Flexible licensing is also helpful in remote areas as temporary and shared licenses are more economically viable than purchasing dedicated spectrum. In addition to supporting innovative technologies that benefit rural areas, such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, the ACMA has also re-farmed spectrum from legacy services to more advanced technologies like 4G and 5G.
Key questions to ask after implementing the innovation
Spectrum innovation is crucial for developing a country’s economy, education system, healthcare services, and community connectivity. However, innovation is not without hindrance—regulators cannot foresee all outcomes.
Only by testing the reality of the spectrum innovation, will regulators be able to answer critical questions:
- How successful is the innovation?
- What is the overall economic impact of the innovation?
- Are entities adhering to the new frequency allocations?
- Are there any spectrum violations?
- Are there any interference issues caused by unforeseen circumstances or legacy users continuing to use the now unlicensed spectrum?
- How wide has the take up of the spectrum reallocation been?
- Has the innovation enabled or accelerated the development of emerging technologies such as 5G, IoT, or smart cities?
- Are the spectrum needs of rural areas balanced with the high demand in urban areas?
- Is there enough essential infrastructure to support the innovation, including mobile base stations and backhaul services?
- Does the innovation lead to better service quality, lower prices, or broader coverage?
- How effective are the compliance and enforcement mechanisms?
- How well does the innovation align with international spectrum management practices?
Using spectrum monitoring technology to measure innovation
National regulators want to make spectrum available to stimulate economic growth and generate revenue, and the ITU promotes spectrum innovation. However, only by answering the central questions above will it be possible to ensure successful innovation.
Spectrum monitoring technology enables the precise measurement of critical parameters, effectively demonstrating the innovation’s success.
Regulators can establish spectrum efficiency by measuring the data transmitted within a given spectrum band. By analyzing signals within a specific frequency range, spectrum management analysts can determine how much of the spectrum is actively used and how efficiently it is being used. Measuring spectrum efficiency accurately is not straightforward as communication systems use techniques such as adaptive modulation, beamforming, and MIMO, all of which are dynamic and, therefore, difficult to measure without some decoding of the signal parameters. In this case, it may be better to take longer-term averages of signals to get a better assessment of spectrum efficiency.
Interference hunting is crucial for maintaining efficient spectrum use. Spectrum can be measured before and after the innovation, and users who continue to use reallocated spectrum can be identified. Reducing interference will result in a higher-quality signal transmission and better user experience. Due to the intermittent nature of interference, it is important that the spectrum monitoring system is capable of detecting and capturing short-burst signals, sending real-time alerts, and recording the signals for later analysis.
Signal quality and coverage
By measuring the quality of received signals, regulators can establish if there have been improvements in previously underserved areas. Field testing signal strength and coverage area can reveal signal quality and, in turn, how efficient spectrum use is. Such coverage testing will often involve drive tests over wide areas, but may, in some cases, be accomplished with a network of temporary fixed receivers, which should be mounted in carefully chosen positions so as to give an unbroken view of the region.
Monitoring the RF spectrum by constantly scanning frequency bands will allow regulators to detect unauthorized transmissions, ensuring that users operate within their allocated spectrum. One use-case is for special events such as the Olympic Games and World Cup sports to ensure security forces have a clear spectrum to operate in, and that broadcast media companies are able to record and transfer camera footage wirelessly without RF interference.
Rate of technology adoption
By scanning the frequency bands allocated for new RF technologies, regulators can identify signals that indicate these technologies are in use. Also, by carrying out spectrum occupancy measurements, regulators can estimate adoption rates over time.
Efficient spectrum allocation through innovation is essential. The ITU’s guidelines help national regulators create the framework for innovations; however, ascertaining the real success of an initiative comes only through careful measurement of the spectrum. Specialized RF hardware and software for real-time and automated spectrum monitoring will allow regulators to determine the overall success of a program. This technology will also enable regulators to make adjustments and improvements to their spectrum plan—ensuring efficiency and allowing for optimization.
Most importantly, comprehensive spectrum measurements with high-fidelity radio receivers allow regulators to gauge how valuable specific spectrum allocations are to customers. Correct pricing is essential—the right spectrum allocation could be worth billions of dollars.