Urban and rural areas are constantly looking to harness the potential of connectivity. The world needs to maximise the use of radio spectrum to meet soaring connectivity demands, and to connect the remaining portion of the world’s population without internet access. Tiered spectrum access is one way that spectrum can be utilised to benefit those in dense urban areas, as well as rural regions which will benefit from closing the digital divide.

Making the best use of spectrum

Spectrum allocated to the mobile service and identified for International Mobile Telecommunications (i.e. available for cellular networks with 3GPP standardization and mobile devices available), is frequently underutilized in rural and sparsely populated areas. In this context, innovative and flexible spectrum management frameworks are required to incentivize affordable mobile broadband connectivity in those areas, enabling opportunities for local network operators, internet service providers, and non-profit entities that have a local presence, and in many cases are already providing solutions but only with license-exempt spectrum access. There is also an opportunity for businesses to harness the potential of deploying their own mobile networks to enhance their operations.

An effective spectrum sharing model would allow national regulatory authorities (NRAs) to simultaneously accommodate both incumbent users, and new entrants in the same frequency band, sometimes enabling those incumbent users to share licensed spectrum with third parties. By delivering more inclusive and affordable connectivity, this model could enable many more people to participate in the digital society.

New technologies for spectrum sharing

After the last World Radiocommunications Conference in 2019 (WRC-19), 17.25 GHz of spectrum has been identified for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT). Out of this number, 14.75 GHz of spectrum has been harmonized worldwide, reaching 85% of global harmonization. Although this large majority of spectrum frequencies suitable for commercial wireless communications have already been identified, in many countries there is a limited amount of assigned spectrum and in some cases. Furthermore, each time there are fewer opportunities to clear frequency bands of incumbent users to make space for new exclusive licensed users.

Thankfully, new technologies like cognitive radios and automated frequency coordination systems are helping to address this challenge. They are making spectrum sharing increasingly feasible, so that incumbent users can remain using their assigned frequency bands, but regulators can also enable some of this spectrum to be utilised for wireless connectivity.

To this end, tiered spectrum access in bands identified for IMT could help support the need for extended mobile connectivity. The application of spectrum sharing to IMT bands would need to protect incumbent users that are not mobile IMT users, such as fixed satellite services, fixed services or military users. It would also need to be clearly defined before any new spectrum assignment process, so the rules are clear, and the “use it or share it” approach needs to be implemented to make the most efficient use of the spectrum.

Developing a spectrum sharing framework

A tiered and dynamic spectrum sharing framework which coordinates frequency usage by mapping the geolocations of the transceivers while protecting incumbents could shed light on spectrum usage for more efficient access through sharing.

NRAs can take steps to make more spectrum available on a shared or lightly-licensed basis by implementing automated dynamic shared access technology, which is readily available from multiple commercial providers and can greatly facilitate access by a wide variety of users. There is no question that today we have the technical ability to automate frequency coordination, which leads to lower transaction costs, more efficient use of spectrum, faster time-to-market for new services, protection of incumbents from interference with greater certainty, and expansion of the supply of wireless connectivity.

Established spectrum sharing frameworks from regulators around the world demonstrate the readiness of the technology and the availability of innovative applications that can make tiered sharing a powerful tool. With these, NRAs can deliver inclusive connectivity, bridge the digital divide, and improve service availability in their markets. Increasing spectrum access by a wide range of new users, including vertical sectors, will result in increased and faster deployment of new networks and services. The introduction of new licensing options supported by automated dynamic spectrum sharing technology is the best path to support such deployments.

The Dynamic Spectrum Alliance continues advocating for tiered and dynamic spectrum access models, which protect incumbent users while using the finite spectrum resources in the most efficient way possible for digital inclusion.