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License-Exempt Bands Enabling Emerging Localized Applications

By Reza Arefi

Approximately every four years, the ITU-R World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC) are held to review and revise the ITU-R Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of spectrum globally[1]. In a few weeks, I, along with my fellow delegates from around the world will be gathering in Egypt to attend WRC-19.  WRC-19 comes at an important time with 5G being standardized and products using new spectrum resources in the 3.x GHz range as well as 26/28 GHz entering the market.

At the same time, two fundamental transformations are being observed in the mobile industry. First, coinciding with the rise of initial 5G use cases, we are witnessing an unprecedented transformation of data itself; the trend towards wirelessly connecting any device (using both cellular and Wi-Fi)[2] almost instantaneously to virtually unlimited computational power and storage resources in the cloud and/or edge is leading to the generation of astronomical amounts of data. Second, more data is being generated in the uplink direction, i.e. by users/device/things towards the network, and more of this data is increasingly real-time[3]. These trends have led to the realization that future market growth will increasingly rely on non-smartphone applications and services.

A deep understanding of the emerging applications will be extremely important for well-planned spectrum regulations.  As the mobile industry transforms, we face the need to futureproof how we approach spectrum by facilitating technical innovation and the development of new applications. Many of the new applications, e.g. gesture control and proximity sensors, or AR/VR[4] for smart industrial helmets, are so localized that leveraging licensed spectrum for their use could make the cost of these applications a non-starter. From a technical perspective, the short-range nature of these applications makes the license-exempt model (for example, as in the 60 GHz band) appropriate because excessive path loss due to atmospheric absorption helps with reining in interference.  From a business perspective, there aren’t enough incentives for service providers to pay a license fee when a system can be operated in close proximity of other systems in the same band without causing or receiving harmful interference.

There are international discussions with respect to identification of 66-71 GHz for IMT at WRC-19, a band which the US[5] and the European regulators[6] have designated as license-exempt. The decision to be taken at the WRC-19 will have far-reaching ramifications if the IMT identification is seen as a sign for licensing the band. The question is not about one regulatory regime being better than another, but rather how suitable the particular spectrum designation is for a specific application.  My Intel colleague, Carlos Cordeiro and I recently published a white paper that looks at this problem. As the discussion takes center stage, it will be critical that the industry and the regulators are able to take a pragmatic look at spectrum regulations for such high frequencies, not lose sight of the needs of the emerging applications being implemented in the 66-71 GHz range, and in the event of an identification, to make sure that license-exempt use of the band is not adversely impacted.


[1] International Telecommunications Union Website:  https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-R/conferences/wrc/2019/Pages/default.aspx

[2] For instance, see: “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2017–2021.”

[3] IDC Data Age 2025 and IDC press release, 2018.

[4] Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality

[5] Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Spectrum Frontiers, Report & Order, August 2016, https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-16-89A1.pdf

[6] ERC Recommendation 70-03, 7 June 2019, https://www.ecodocdb.dk/download/25c41779-cd6e/Rec7003e.pdf

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