Win, Lose and Draw: Outcomes from the 2019 World Radio Conference

19 Pages Posted: 8 Sep 2020

See all articles by Rob Frieden

Rob Frieden

Pennsylvania State University - Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications; Pennsylvania State Law

Date Written: July 27, 2020


This paper identifies the winners and losers at the 2019 meeting of the World Radio Conference, the global forum for developing harmonized spectrum allocations convened by the International Telecommunication Union (“ITU”). World Radio Conferences, convened in four-year cycles, seek global consensus on spectrum allocations and reallocation. At WRC-19, the 193 participating nations agreed to add 17.25 Gigahertz (“GHz”) in bandwidth for fifth generation (“5G”) wireless services, with a total 19.14 GHz bandwidth now available for domestic assignment by individual national regulatory authorities.

Despite incremental progress at the ITU, senior-level United States government officials deem the ITU unable to make timely spectrum planning decisions. Federal Communications Commissioners, from both political parties, have largely rejected ITU consensus building, despite the fact that the U.S. assumed lead responsibility for creating the ITU’s rules and heretofore has complied with them. In the last eight years, the FCC has conducted 5G spectrum auctions that have contributed over $121.2 billion to the U.S. Treasury with an additional $12.05 billion awarded to incumbent broadcast television licensees as compensation for quickly abandoning a channel assignment, or changing frequencies.

This paper reports on the decisions reached at WRC-19 with an eye toward assessing whether the ITU can reach timely resolution of spectrum allocation disputes. Additionally, the paper identifies the benefits and costs in the FCC’s unilateral 5G spectrum initiatives that include market-driven resource frequency assignments instead of full compliance with longstanding ITU “rules of the road” that seek to optimize technologies and harmonize spectrum allocations globally. The paper also assesses whether the ITU can remain a trusted and effective forum even though the FCC and other government agencies justify unilateralism as necessary to address national security, trade and 5G leadership concerns for which the ITU has no basis to resolve. The paper concludes that U.S. efforts to maintain or reacquire 5G market and technology leadership will generate positive “first mover” advantages, but also unanticipated and offsetting harmful consequences.

Keywords: International Telecommunication Union, 2019 World Radio Conference, Spectrum Planning, Spectrum Management, FCC, National Security, Trade Policy, Telecommunications Law and Policy

JEL Classification: F51, F53, G18, K23, L51, L86, L88, L96, L98, O33, P45

Suggested Citation

Frieden, Rob and Frieden, Rob, Win, Lose and Draw: Outcomes from the 2019 World Radio Conference (July 27, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Rob Frieden (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State Law

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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Pennsylvania State University - Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications ( email )

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United States
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