Industry Thought Leadership

The Importance of Spectrum Planning

August, 2017
Mohammed A Alabdulqader
Director, Spectrum Management

Etihad Etisalat (Mobily)

The radio spectrum is utilized for numerous purposes and has civil, social, scientific, emergency, safety, and defense applications. As such, a large number of end users require access to the spectrum on a continual basis. To ensure that the availability and usage of the spectrum are optimized, spectrum planning processes are essential. They provide basic direction that supports the formulation of policy and outlines the steps that are required to ensure that access to the radio spectrum achieves its full potential and adheres to international and national regulations, rules, and agreements in terms of technical characteristics, availability, and reliability. Spectrum planning involves mapping the current and future requirements of the frequency spectrum and considering major trends and developments in technology. In addition, there is also a need to identify and map the systems that are required for frequency management activities; for example, monitoring systems, channeling plan techniques, and frequency management tools.

The rules and regulations that govern frequency management are continually being updated. The ITU, a division of the United Nations, is a global body that was established with the responsibility for coordinating the shared global use of the radio spectrum. Other than the scope of optimal radio spectrum usage, among many duties, the ITU also assists in the development and coordination of worldwide technical standards that subsequently guide spectrum usage. Due to the complexity of this task, the ITU also organizes worldwide forums and exhibitions that share the latest updates on the interrelated evolutions and discrepancies associated with frequency planning and availability. These events are attended by representatives from governments and radio, telecommunications and ICT industries.

It is the end users that drive the market and dictate the requirements for the frequency spectrum. In the radio telecommunication environment, the users have many devices at their disposal that are served by the networks. Networks support and distribute the information to the end-users of devices via physical means (fix services) or via air (wireless services, namely simplified in ‘communication of the radio-spectrum carried by radio waves’). Furthermore, those wireless services can be terrestrial, maritime, or aeronautical in the range of 8.3 kHz to 3000 GHz according to the 2015 ITU Radio Regulations.

In the telecommunication market in recent years, the spectrum has become the basic ‘physical means’ by which the majority of current services are provided to end users, be they civilian, commercial or governmental, and these services will undoubtedly grow further in the future. As such, this resource needs to be managed in a way that maximizes the optimal technical usage and economic revenues for all the stakeholders in line with this market trend.

When defining high-level objectives for spectrum planning, it is important to take several factors into consideration including the need to maximize the value of the outputs produced by the spectrum that is currently available, including the valuation of public outputs provided by the government or other public authorities, and the need to update the guidelines that manage the optimization of the resources that have already been allocated and are in operation. Last, but not least, refarming represents a method by which technical resources can be optimized, and the economic benefits that are available to all the stakeholders can be potentially increased, even if this involves long-term activities.

The allocation of the spectrum to different uses has to be processed in a way that the marginal economic benefit of the additional spectrum is the same for every use or is ‘normalized’ across every stakeholder. Some important factors need to be taken into consideration when attempting to achieve this objective. Suppose a part of the spectrum (a band) is available for use in only two sectors (civilian and commercial); for instance, mobile communications and commercial broadcasting. How should it be fairly divided between the two uses?

Technically efficient spectrum use is somewhat of a self-explanatory benefit. Indeed, technical efficiency rationally counts as the leading factor in spectrum allocation decisions. In practice, however, it can bring competing policy goals or directives into play. Occupancy and data rate are two basic measures (KPIs) that are used to determine how efficiently certain allocated bands and/or assigned frequencies or channels are being used by services and users. However, in practice, both measures have inherent problems. Some uses are crucial, yet only occasional. In the absence of procedures that govern how the spectrum is shared with other users, which may be very costly to implement, the capacity that is often left unused could be essential; for instance, for public safety services.

Even though spectrum management is in the interests of private, public, commercial, and military end-users, there are many more stakeholders involved in the sector. Examples of those who access the spectrum include equipment manufacturers, technology companies, and public sector users, all of whom can be affected by spectrum management decisions. As such, it is essential that the processes employed to regulate and manage spectrum use are efficient for all stakeholders. Even if the required knowledge and expertise of all stakeholders and users is present, the regulator will encounter the challenge of balancing the needs of all the involved parties with different sectorial interests and will be required to supervise, control, and manage the executions of its allocations, allotments and assignments, as defined in ITU-R Radio Regulations.