FCC’s O’Rielly suggests ‘G7-like’ alternative to ITU

Michael O'Rielly Headshot
FCC Commissioner O'Rielly also urged forward progress on the 5.9 GHz and 6 GHz band for unlicensed use. (FCC)

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly this week called into question the value of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and suggested a “G7-like” alternative may be needed to ensure global spectrum harmonization efforts are not sidelined by certain nations’ geopolitics.

The ITU is an international body within the United Nations, which holds the roughly month-long World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) every three to four years to review and revise member nations’ use of spectrum and satellite orbits, with the aim of harmonizing spectrum use around the world.

O’Rielly’s comments came before a Senate committee where he said (PDF) last year's WRC-19 in Egypt “raised some fundamental concerns that ultimately call into question the continued value of future conferences.”

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O’Rielly noted that although some spectrum goals were met to a certain extent, he felt there were foreign delegations that “were sent with clear directions to oppose the United States and other forward-thinking nations.

“This appeared, from my viewpoint, motivated by larger geopolitical purposes and to protect domestic industries from competition from U.S.-based companies," he said. "Such conduct went far beyond normal negotiation strategy, serving to further sour many other participants’ perspectives regarding the value of WRC and, more fundamentally, the ITU itself.”

He suggested certain participants lacked real interest in global wireless development and were willing to disrupt the process for their own self-interest, suggesting a new coalition may be needed.

“This is one reason I think the U.S. should explore the formation of a G7-like organization or loose coalition of leading wireless nations, as an alternative to the ITU,” O’Rielly said.

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The international G7 organization is comprised of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K.

“Near-global harmonization could be achieved through agreement of the largest, leading wireless nations of the world,” O’Rielly said. “To some degree, this is why the private standard-setting organizations — i.e., those outside the ITU — have become more prominent and why I have also spent considerable time ensuring these entities are not sidelined by certain nations’ political agendas.”

This is not the first time O’Rielly has taken issue with ITU. Following WRC-15, O’Reilly was concerned with the process when certain U.S. objectives were not achieved, including global 600 MHz allocation and the inclusion of the 28 GHz band in 5G feasibility studies.

“It is incomprehensible that even doing studies should be a non-starter or off the table,” O’Rielly said at the time. “Science should dictate the efficient allocation of spectrum, not politics or international protectionism.”

While the WRC-15 decisions didn’t impact U.S. plans to reallocate the 600 MHz band or move forward on 28 GHz, after his participation O’Rielly said he was “ left asking whether it is worth the country’s time and money to engage in this process and whether the ITU and WRC have a lasting future.”

O’Rielly’s recent call for the formation of a new international body goes further though than his stance in 2017, when he stressed the need for greater U.S. involvement in the ITU to ensure the country successfully meets policy objectives.

“I suggest that we demand a larger role and say in the ITU leadership,” O’Rielly said in remarks before the 5G Americas’ Technology Briefing. “It is ironic that we are the second largest contributor of funds to the ITU, but only one Secretary General has come from the U.S. in 150 years and the last American sector head was approximately 25 years ago. People from the U.S. should be within the upper echelons of ITU leadership.”

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In terms of spectrum, at Senate hearing this week O’Rielly and fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel each took the opportunity to stress the critical need for mid-band spectrum for 5G in the U.S. and a plan to free up more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi.

“Today Wi-Fi contributes hundreds of billions to our economy each year. But going forward we will need Wi-Fi that can keep up with faster 5G speeds—because up to 70 percent of 5G traffic may be offloaded to Wi-Fi,” Rosenworcel said (PDF) in prepared remarks. “That means the FCC must move faster to secure multiple wide channels for next generation Wi-Fi that will help us realize gigabit-plus speeds in homes, offices, and factories.”

O’Rielly acknowledged debate over how to best allocate additional bands for unlicensed use will likely continue, but urged forward progress on the 5.9 GHz and 6 GHz bands.

“In both instances, incumbent provider services can be properly protected or accommodated, as needed, to prevent harmful interference while allowing the benefits of unlicensed technologies to flourish,” O’Rielly said.