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At the core of ICT, the spectrum beats with the rhythm of progress in 2024, urging us to sync with its frequencies for a front-row seat to the transformative journey of innovation.

By definition, spectrum refers to the range of electromagnetic frequencies used for transmitting data wirelessly. It encompasses radio waves, microwaves, and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. In technology, spectrum is the foundation for wireless communication, enabling various services like mobile networks, Wi-Fi, satellite communication, and broadcasting.

From smartphones to smart home devices, spectrum enables seamless connectivity, powering the Internet of Things (IoT) and supporting the interconnectivity of modern gadgets. As an innovation driver, the availability and efficient utilization of spectrum fuels technological innovations, including the deployment of high-speed networks like 5G.

Bearing all this in mind, spectrum is a valuable economic asset, with its efficient use contributing to economic growth and technological advancements.

Staying informed about spectrum trends in 2024 is crucial for various stakeholders, including businesses, regulators, and consumers.

Current Spectrum Landscape

Mobile operators rely on radio spectrum frequency to provide quality and affordable services to consumers. A transparent, long-term radio-frequency plan is essential for encouraging investment and innovation in mobile services in 2024.

The ITU-R plays a crucial role in managing global spectrum matters through regulations and resolutions. The recent ITU WRC-23 outcomes have provided a roadmap for planning in low and mid-band spectrums, shaping the future of mobile communication.

Frequencies in the mid-band spectrum are vital for 5G deployment due to their coverage, speed, and capacity. However, with increasing data consumption, the availability of mid-band spectrum is shrinking globally, posing a challenge for 5G adoption.

Newly Allocated Spectrum Bands: WRC-23 has allocated new spectrum bands, including the 470–694 MHz, 3.3–3.8 GHz in EMEA, and the globally significant 6.425–7.125 GHz band. The 6GHz spectrum, in particular, is expected to simplify 5G progression and support the development of 5G-Advanced.

Operators' Pursuit of 6GHz Spectrum: Operators worldwide, including major players like TIM Brasil and Huawei, are actively seeking access to the 6GHz spectrum for 5G. Interoperability tests have demonstrated high speeds, setting the stage for a harmonized transition to 5G-Advanced.

Regional Considerations: Despite Europe's steady 5G rollout, operators need to embrace the newly released 6GHz spectrum and mmWave spectrum (24GHz–300GHz) to maintain global competitiveness and offer higher speeds. Smart city operations in Europe leverage harmonized frequency bands, including 700 MHz, 3.5 GHz, and 26 GHz, where commercial 5G has been available across all 27 EU countries since January 2022. In June 2023, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) allocated crucial spectrum bands to mobile operators, MTN and Airtel, facilitating mid-band deployment for 5G.

US National Spectrum Strategy: Various telecom players, including Verizon, Qualcomm, and SpaceX, provided feedback on the US administration's spectrum strategy. Divergent perspectives were highlighted, ranging from unlicensed and shared-spectrum scenarios to interest in specific frequency ranges like 12GHz.

Wi-Fi Access in 6 GHz Band: Several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the US, authorized Wi-Fi access to the entire 6 GHz band to meet the increasing demands for wireless connectivity.

Advancements in HAPS Spectrum: SoftBank takes the lead in discussions within the ITU-R and APT regarding spectrum allocation for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) technology. The decisions made at the WRC-23 to introduce new mobile spectrum bands provide increased flexibility for mobile broadband communication services utilizing HAPS technology.

Evolving Regulatory Landscape

According to the ITU, companies and industry associations can submit proposals for the IMT-2030 Radio Interface Technology (RIT) to the ITU-R in early 2027. The submissions will undergo evaluation against minimum requirements set by the ITU-R Working Party 5D, aiming to establish 6G tech standards by 2030.

6G is anticipated to enable immersive interactive video, intelligent industrial applications (such as telemedicine and energy grid management), enhanced ubiquitous connectivity (especially in remote areas), expanded IoT, AI-powered applications, and multi-dimensional sensing for improved navigation. Additionally, it is being developed to address environmental, social, and economic sustainability goals aligned with the Paris Agreement.

Network Sunsets: In 2024, the shutdown of networks (2G and 3G) becomes a matter of 'when,' not 'if.' GSMA Intelligence reports that 143 networks globally are scheduled to go offline between 2023 and 2030, with 50% planned by the end of 2024. A well-planned network sunset roadmap is crucial to ensure a smooth transition and address market demand for new mobile services.

Unified Licensing Framework: Regulators are increasingly adopting a service-neutral or unified licensing framework. This allows operators to use technology-neutral spectrum licenses for various mobile-based services, including Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). Such frameworks aim to remove restrictions, reduce costs, and eliminate red tape, facilitating the introduction of new mobile services in response to market demand.

Expanding Mid-Band Spectrum: WRC-23 identified the 6 GHz band (6.425-7.125 GHz) as additional mid-band spectrum to meet the rising demand for mobile data globally. Countries in EMEA, the Americas, and the Asia Pacific, representing over 60% of the world's population, have harmonized this band for expanding mobile capacity, particularly for 5G-Advanced and future technologies.

Low-Band Spectrum for Digital Equality: WRC-23 took a significant step towards digital equality by defining the mobile use of more low-band spectrum (470-694 MHz) in EMEA. In 2024, the role of low bands in expanding internet connectivity in rural communities will become evident, addressing the urban-rural connectivity gap and promoting digital equality in the EMEA region.

Bridging the Digital Divide: Canada's 2024 spectrum licensing framework follows a "use it or lose it" approach, requiring telecom companies to use allocated spectrum promptly or risk losing it. This framework prioritizes easy local access to 5G spectrum for internet service providers, innovative industries, and rural, remote, and indigenous communities, contributing to enhanced connectivity in rural areas.

Shaping Spectrum Strategies

Over the past three decades, auctions have emerged as the primary mechanism for mobile spectrum assignment. Designed to ensure transparency and efficiency, they have become instrumental in supporting competitive, high-quality mobile services. However, alternative approaches, such as administrative awards, gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic to swiftly allocate spectrum to meet the surge in data usage.

In 2024, there is a growing recognition that spectrum auctions are not solely revenue-maximizing tools but also key drivers of a nation's digital growth. Positive shifts in this perspective have been observed in countries like India, Panama, Bangladesh, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Divergent Approaches in Latin America: Brazil showcased commitment with one of the largest multi-band auctions in December 2021, allocating 91% of spectrum costs to investments. Conversely, Mexico is freezing spectrum prices, resisting regulator proposals for flexible payment structures.

Asia's Spectrum Initiatives: Indonesia plans to auction 700MHz and 26GHz spectrum, aiming to elevate 5G speeds closer to developed countries while Pakistan aims for a 5G launch by August 2024, reflecting a regional push for advanced mobile services.

Spectrum Standardization and Technology Neutrality

Standardization and technology neutrality play pivotal roles in expanding affordable 5G services. The harmonization of mid-band spectrum, like 3.5 GHz, facilitates this expansion. Addressing the digital divide also requires government action to harmonize low bands, such as 600 MHz.

Without a doubt, establishing a clear roadmap for increasing spectrum capacity is imperative. Specific recommendations include setting deadlines for introducing post-2030 mobile services, conducting cost-benefit analyses for spectrum bands like 6 GHz, and adopting policies that ensure flexibility and neutrality in assignment.

Environmental Considerations in Spectrum Policies

Regulators are exploring the integration of climate change assessments into spectrum policy frameworks. Recognizing the non-monetary impacts, such as carbon emissions, aligns spectrum policies with broader national and international climate action goals. We expect to see more eco-friendly decision-making in terms of spectrum in 2024.

With the progress on 6 GHz, studies suggest that allowing license-exempt access to the entire 6 GHz band can significantly reduce energy consumption, aligning with environmental policy goals. In this way, spectrum policies can be a tool for achieving emission reduction targets while promoting efficient and affordable networks.

Smart City Influence and Call to Action for Industry Stakeholders

In 2024, a call to action is directed at regulators and policymakers to promptly implement WRC-23 decisions in national allocations. This supports spectrum harmonization, mitigates interference issues, and encourages long-term investments from mobile operators.

Moreover, the evolution of spectrum regulation is anticipated to be heavily influenced by the smart city era, with real-life experiences shaping future directions. Localized spectrum bands and operations tailored to specific smart city needs may lead to divergences between countries. The concept of smart cities emphasizes the need to support unique network coverage and functionality requirements.

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