Digital Regulation Platform

Elements of spectrum management for upcoming technologies


The need to manage spectrum at the national level

The electromagnetic spectrum is a scarce resource that should be properly managed in order to provide the maximum social and economic benefits to society. Because the supply of usable spectrum is finite, its value is determined by the demand for any given frequency range. Balancing the spectrum demands of various applications is a key role for regulators. The implementation of an effective system of spectrum management includes several aspects, such as:

Regulators can achieve these goals by implementing best practices in spectrum management, monitoring, and planning. Effective spectrum management considers the shifting demand created by new technologies and applications. Policies that are not technology specific allows for flexibility in the use of spectrum, facilitating a more efficient use of spectrum and allowing regulators to implement long-term plans. These efforts are key to creating a competitive environment for new technologies to be developed and deployed.

Spectrum demand for upcoming technologies

Spectrum demand is not constant and depends on the technology and use cases that can be implemented within a given frequency range. The recent increase in demand for the millimetre wave (mmWave) frequencies above 6 GHz provides a useful example. Until recently, relatively little demand existed for high-band spectrum like mmWave frequencies. With the development of new technologies that enable data transmission at higher frequencies, the demand for high-band spectrum has increased substantially.

With this heightened demand, countries globally are allocating and assigning mmWave frequencies for more applications. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) completed its largest ever auction for a total of 3 400 MHz of spectrum in the 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands (FCC 2020). The auction is part of the FCC’s 5G FAST plan, which includes the identification and planned auction of segments of the 3.5 GHz and 3.7 GHz to support the deployment of 5G services in mid-band frequencies.

The fifth generation (5G) of mobile technologies and other new technologies are allowing a greater variety of applications to make use of frequencies across different ranges of spectrum. For example, while International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) services were previously focused on frequencies below 6 GHz, 5G has increased the demand for all ranges of frequency for use by mobile services. Similarly, as non-geostationary (NGSO) satellite systems are increasingly being deployed, demand for frequencies allocated to fixed satellite services (FSS) has increased. Effective spectrum management requires regulators to maintain a solid grasp on not just the current demand for various segments of spectrum, but potential changes to demand that could result from the diffusion of new technologies. The monitoring of spectrum, regulatory flexibility, and transparent long-term planning are critical components to successful spectrum management.

Monitoring and planning to ensure flexibility in spectrum management

Spectrum monitoring is an important tool for regulators to evaluate how current spectrum users are deploying applications in their assigned frequencies. Monitoring can provide salient information to mediate the competing interests of incumbent and new technologies. Thorough monitoring can determine which frequencies are being used, and where. Understanding current spectrum use can help identify unused frequencies that can be used for new technologies. It can also ensure that current spectrum users are within the parameters of their licences, or the designated unlicensed frequencies for the technology in question.

Furthermore, spectrum monitoring enables regulators to ensure the compliance of spectrum users with current regulations, identify and address interference issues, and gauge the use of different frequency bands. As new technologies compete with incumbent services across the spectrum, a proactive and modern approach to monitoring is increasingly necessary (Lu and others 2017). Spectrum occupancy (whether a frequency is assigned) and utilization (whether it is currently in use) are two particularly important metrics for regulators to consider.

A critical use of spectrum monitoring is to identify harmful emissions that can serve as sources of interference for other applications. When regulators identify the presence of harmful interference, they must take steps to address it by enforcing national regulations on spectrum use. Depending on its source, it could take the form of shutting down unauthorized transmitters or holding authorized users to the conditions of their access to spectrum. For example, the Republic of Korea implements a network of fixed and mobile monitoring stations around the country to carry out spectrum monitoring activities. Having this robust infrastructure and automated monitoring system in place was useful when the country faced higher demands on its spectrum during the 2018 Winter Olympics (Moon 2018).

On the technical side, proper equipment certification processes to ensure electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) are important. The system of testing and certifying the technical characteristics of equipment to reduce interference is known as certification and homologation. In order to avoid harmful interference from the growing number of connected devices operating in unlicensed frequencies, regulators should ensure robust homologation processes. Some countries, such as Member States of the European Union (EU), rely on common certification standards that allow regional interoperability of equipment. Others require specific, in-country testing and certification to permit the use of a device within their borders.

In 2019, Costa Rica amended the requirements to its homologation process for mobile terminals. One of the major new requirements is that all products using cellular technology must be tested by an accredited laboratory within the country. Similar types of requirements exist in various countries, and can be illustrated as the following:

In addition to reducing harmful interference, regulators can promote efficiency by implementing policies such as flexible spectrum management. Flexibility is important to promote efficiency and accommodate the development of new technologies, allowing spectrum users to make the best use of this finite resource. Regulators can implement flexible spectrum management by pursuing technology-neutral policies, allowing spectrum sharing, and supporting trading of permits. About one in three countries allow the secondary trading of spectrum, mostly in Europe, and almost three in four countries implement technology-neutral licences (ITU 2019).

Flexible spectrum management policies are important to establish a clear regulatory framework that can adapt to changes in spectrum demand brought on by the development of new technologies. A flexible framework helps regulators to develop future-proof long-term plans that can adjust to changes in the market.

Long-term spectrum planning

Long-term spectrum planning typically presents significant challenges for spectrum managers as it requires them to foresee spectrum demand far into the future, generally for periods of 10 to 20 years. The difficulty in planning plan so far ahead highlights the importance of a well-established structure to bring transparency to the process, resulting in a more stable regulatory environment, which can be updated and modified as required. While relevant for any country, this is particularly important for developing countries that need to attract investment for infrastructure development. Transparency mechanisms can include issuing public consultations, spectrum road maps, regulatory agendas, public access to spectrum inventory and availability of spectrum, as well as spectrum plans for specific services. For example, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the country’s ICT regulator, regularly publishes detailed public consultations on spectrum issues as well as an annual five-year spectrum outlook that lays out an action plan and regulatory priorities (ACMA 2019). The report itself is released for public comment in advance of its official publication, in a further effort to increase transparency and public input. ACMA also maintains an online progress report to allow interested parties to track the implementation of its current action plan (ACMA 2020).

Spectrum efficiency at the national level

Efficiency is determined by the amount of information that can be transmitted over a given frequency range. While measuring spectrum use is a relatively straightforward process, evaluating the efficiency of spectrum use can present challenges, as it can be difficult to compare the relative benefits provided by different services.

Some countries have tried to distil measures of spectrum efficiency to a specific metric. In 2004, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) proposed a technical efficiency metric for mobile telephony. However, following a public consultation process, TRAI decided not to implement any metric to assess spectrum efficiency, noting, “while the concept of efficient use is a must, actual implementation through measurements is somewhat impractical. It would take a very considerable effort and analysis to carry out such tasks and even, having done this, the results can be easily questioned.” TRAI opted instead to base its analysis of spectrum efficiency on the number of subscribers it serves, a more straightforward strategy that was more easily implemented (TRAI 2005: 41).

In 2012, Colombia’s National Spectrum Agency (ANE) initiated a series of studies to promote the efficient use of its spectrum resources. Its first report identified metrics, such as flexible spectrum management and an active secondary market for spectrum permits, that would encourage efficiency in spectrum use. A few years later, ANE released a second document focused on guidelines such as a light licensing framework. As of 2020, ANE has determined that relying on the guidelines promoting flexibility, light regulation, and a strong secondary market is a more pragmatic system to encourage spectrum efficiency than relying on a particular equation.

One way that governments can reliably promote efficiency is by incentivizing spectrum users to deploy more efficient technologies. For example, in 2017 Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) required operators to phase out their 2G networks, known as 2G shutdown, in favour of more efficient mobile technologies on a scheduled timeline (IMDA 2017).

Regional coordination can also increase spectrum efficiency by reducing interference along international borders. For example, in May 2019 the European Commission (EC) adopted a decision to harmonize the use of the 26 GHz band across its Member States for the use of 5G. The EC hopes that regional harmonization will advance the deployment of advanced technology within the EU and prevent harmful interference between Member States. The EC gave Member States a deadline of December 31, 2020 to implement the decision within their national regulatory framework.

Spectrum refarming

In cases where regulators hope to allow the deployment of new applications in frequencies that are occupied by incumbent services, it may be necessary to migrate existing applications to a newer technology or the incumbents to other frequencies. This process is known as refarming. The execution of a successful refarming process depends on effective management and engagement with relevant stakeholders. Countries have differing methods of balancing the competing interests of incumbent services and new applications. Some common methods of refarming include:

Refarming incumbent users has allowed for the deployment of past technologies. The majority of fourth generation (4G) network deployments around the world operate on refarmed spectrum in frequency bands previously used by earlier technology generations (i.e. 2G and 3G) (Sanni 2017). Successful refarming of spectrum relies on the appropriate implementation of other aspects of spectrum regulation. For example, technology-neutral licensing can encourage incumbents to deploy more efficient technologies within their assigned frequencies. If the incumbent is not utilizing their frequency assignments, spectrum trading can allow licence holders to transfer their spectrum rights to other entities who will deploy more efficient technologies and make better use of the resource.

In the long-term, stable and predictable regulation of spectrum rights fosters a more competitive economic environment. Therefore, mandates and the revocation of licences should only be viewed by regulators as a last resort. It is preferable to gather buy-in from operators and licence holders far in advance of the planned refarming. This allows incumbents to decide for themselves how to use their spectrum most efficiently. France’s refarming initiative in the 900 MHz and 1 800 MHz bands provides a useful example (NERA 2011). Planning for that process began nearly ten years in advance of any actions taken by the regulator. To encourage operators to move from 2G to 3G technology, France first allocated the bands and adjusted licence provisions to include 3G. The process was operator driven, as 2G licences were renewed and operators were given a choice as to when to apply for newly expanded licences. This process was supported by regional efforts to coordinate the 3G deployment.

In summary

Key findings: elements of spectrum management for upcoming technologies

  • Regulators should work to understand the drivers of spectrum demand, including new technologies and applications.
  • Spectrum monitoring can provide important information for regulators, such as spectrum occupancy and use, assisting in efficient allocation of scarce resources.
  • Regulatory flexibility is key to allow systems to adapt to changing technology and spectrum demand.
  • Transparency in availability and accessibility of information, allowing more stable spectrum planning processes, which fosters a more competitive market and allows the deployment of new technologies.
  • A major focus of spectrum management should be the promotion of efficient use of spectrum, through adequate regulatory initiatives.


ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority). 2019. Five-Year Spectrum Outlook 2019–23: The ACMA’S Spectrum Management Work Program. Canberra: ACMA.

ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority). 2020. FYSO 2019–23: Progress Report for July–Dec 2019. Canberra: ACMA.

FCC (Federal Communications Commission). 2020. “FCC Concludes Largest Ever Spectrum Auction, Advancing American Leadership in 5G.” FCC News, March 12, 2020.

Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). 2017. “2G Services to Cease on April 1, 2017.” News Release, March 27, 2017.

ITU (International Telecommunication Union). 2019. World Telecommunication/ICT Regulatory Survey. Geneva: ITU.

Lu, Q., J. Yang, Z. Jin, D. Chen, and M. Huang. 2017. “State of the Art and Challenges of Radio Spectrum Monitoring in China.” Radio Science 52(10): 1261-1267.

Moon, P.G. 2018. “Case Study on Spectrum Management and Monitoring in Korea.” study in Korea.pdf.

NERA. 2011. 900 MHz and 1800 MHz Band Refarming Case Study: France. Washington, DC: NERA Economic Consulting.

Sanni, S. 2017. “How to Implement Spectrum Re-Farming.”

TRAI (Telecommunications Regulatory Authority). 2005. Recommendations on Spectrum Related Issues. New Delhi: TRAI.

Last updated on: 19.01.2022
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