Held every three to four years since 1992, the WRC is one of the foremost international forums organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to review, and, if necessary, revise the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the geostationary-satellite and non-geostationary-satellite orbits.
With about 3,500 industry experts from over 190 nations set to arrive in Egypt later this month, the WRC-2019 will face the heated debate about the allocation and utilization of 5G mmWave spectrum amid clashing regional interests between Africa and Europe, which is reportedly fueled by the protectionist interest of European space industry.
While the space industry claims potential interference with its space services such as Earth observation and weather forecast, African experts foresee opportunities for the continent’s digital economy with the use of mmWave for 5G services.
In its latest forecast on the global impact of 5G, the GSM Association (GSMA) predicted that the availability of 5G technology would increase the gross domestic product (GDP) of sub-Saharan Africa by USD 5.6 billion, noting a potential global economic growth of USD 565 billion by 2034.
However, GSMA further slammed the “protectionist tendencies” of the space industry, adding that the European space industry will “unreasonably constrain” the use of these critical frequencies and possibly “derail” the expected 5G economic growth.
“5G will be an evolutionary step with a revolutionary impact, having a deeper effect on our lives than any previous mobile generation,” said Akinwale Goodluck, the GSMA’s head of Sub-Saharan Africa.
“As mobile operators continue to expand 4G connections across the region, now is the time for African governments to lay the foundation for their 5G future by identifying the needed spectrum at WRC-19,” he added.
The space industry agrees that societal impacts are at stake, but sees the priorities differently. Meteorologists are pushing to protect the frequencies which are critical for Earth observation from space and say that lives could potentially be at risk otherwise. Scientists have warned that 5G systems could harm weather forecasting. One concern raised, for example, is around the 23.8 GHz frequency. Water vapour emits a faint signal at this wavelength, and that data is monitored and measured by weather satellites for forecasts.
In a statement released earlier in July, GSMA’s head of spectrum, Brett Tarnutzer, said, “We can’t let misinformation and the overly protectionist attitudes of the space industry derail the 5G revolution. Over-stringent protection will limit the spectrum needed for 5G and have huge consequences for society. This could put the economic and innovation bonanza accompanying ultra-fast networks on hold for a generation.”
“Africa must stand strong at WRC-19 to protect its interests and secure its digital future,” said Goodluck.
As the host country, Egypt will chair the conference activities, which some experts believe will help reiterate Africa’s voice in securing the critical spectrums and in fostering international cooperation in rapidly evolving technology sectors.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Analyst at Space in Africa. His experience spans industry research and market analysis with a focus on African-grown NewSpace companies, commercial space industry, national space programmes and real-life application of space science for sustainable development in Africa.