A global spectrum policy tool kit

Here is a collection of information about rules for license-exempt radio at the international level, to help advocates of spectrum reform better understand the policy landscape.

Radio licenses are issued at the national level, but within a framework developed internationally. The international Radio Regulations are a binding treaty revised every few years at World Radio Conferences (WRCs) which are convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). In addition, ITU Recommendations shape national rules regarding signal characteristics, measurement techniques, and how equipment is designed, deployed and used.

National regulations can differ from international norms. This is especially easy for short-range devices, whose signals are too weak to interfere with stations conforming to ITU rules in other countries. Governments can also register their objection to particular parts of the international Radio Regulations by attaching Reservations to the ITU treaty. A similar process exists for the international Table of Frequency Allocations: countries can add Footnotes to the Table, describing their policies as exceptions.

But as the market for radio equipment globalizes, there is growing pressure on national regulators to "harmonize" with world standards. Manufacturers want agreement on the bands that devices use so they don't have to make a different model for every country. The World Trade Organization (WTO) strives to prevent national spectrum sovereignty from creating barriers to trade. Regional associations of telecom regulators are also increasingly influential and they, too, promote harmonization. The ITU itself strives for consensus and compromise, to ensure that their decisions are broadly supported.

So the relationship between national, regional and global spectrum policies is interactive - "bottom up" as well as "top down" and "peer-to-peer." Changes in national laws are needed to open the spectrum for more unlicensed use, yet one cannot ignore the international dimension, since positive international policy changes encourage reforms at the national level, while bad international policies inhibit reform everywhere. Thus, it is important to understand and engage with global and regional policy processes, regardless of whether they are helpful or problematic.

Global and Regional policy fora (2005)

International Telecommunication Union

The ITU is an intergovernmental organization. Its members are States. Some national governments consult with business leaders, academic experts and NGOs as they prepare positions on matters discussed in the ITU, and some delegations to ITU events include representatives from the private sector. So one way to influence ITU policy is by helping your government prepare for ITU events, contributing opinions and research. Another way is to be selected as a delegate to an ITU meeting.

However, not all governments are open to citizen participation. Even then, it is still useful to know about ITU processes and positions, if only so that misrepresentations cannot be used to justify bad national policies. (A recent survey found that 60% of African countries said their Wi-Fi licensing policies are based on ITU recommendations, even when they actually conflict with those recommendations.)

Because of limited funding and the need to reposition itself for WSIS, telecom privatization and a possible role in Internet governance, the ITU's willingness to consider input from nongovernmental organizations is increasing - albeit from a very low level, and primarily to make "Sector Members" feel like partners. ("Sector Members" tend to be large firms operating commercial networks.) Especially in the area of technical research, the ITU is "contribution driven." "Research Organizations" may respond to ITU surveys, while "Sector Members" and "Associates" can attend Study Group meetings and submit proposals and position papers, although they cannot vote. "Associate" membership costs about $3200/year, or about $1600/year for organizations registered in developing countries. See the ITU-R Associates webpage for details. "Sector" memberships are much more expensive and are not suitable for the audiences we want to address.

The ITU's website ( has made their documentation more accessible, but only up to a point. Drafts of working texts for the Study Groups and contributions for the WRCs are still only available to government officials and Sector Members. Other documents are priced high to supplement the ITU budget. However, careful searches of the ITU website - and the websites of agencies which deal with the ITU - sometimes reveal surprises.

Radio license exemption and the ITU

Until quite recently, ITU policies discouraged unlicensed radio transmissions. ITU-R Regulation S18.1 still says:

"No transmitting station may be established or operated by a private person or by any enterprise without a license issued in an appropriate form and in conformity with the provisions of these Regulations by or on behalf of the government of the country to which the station in question is subject."

Meanwhile Regulation S4.4 says:

"Administrations of the Member States shall not assign to a station any frequency in derogation of either the Table of Frequency Allocations in this Chapter or the other provisions of these Regulations, except on the express condition that such a station...shall not cause harmful interference to, and shall not claim protection from harmful interference caused by, a station operating in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the Convention and these Regulations."
While they seem strict, many countries interpret these two rules as jointly indicating that unlicensed "stations" are allowed so long as they do not cause harmful interference to any properly operating licensed station. That interpretation is codified in Draft New Report ITU-R SM.[Doc. 1/54]: Guidance on the Regulatory Framework for National Spectrum Management, to be presented at WRC-07:

"In situations where there is no risk of causing harmful interference across borders, for example when low power transmitters are used, administrations may overlook [S18.1], designating the corresponding band for 'unlicensed use,' or [as a] 'common.'

The Draft New Report is still being revised and by WRC-07 it could be quite different. Nevertheless, the ITU's new attitude toward unlicensed radio is increasingly positive and deserves publicity:

ITU Study Groups

Some 1500 specialists from telecoms organizations, research institutes and government agencies participate in the work of the ITU Study Groups. These Groups draft Recommendations to guide national regulators and prepare Reports for consideration at the World Radio Conferences. ITU Recommendations are essentially answers to Questions assigned to the Study Groups. The Study Groups dealing with Questions we care about most are:

Under the auspices of SG1, Working Party 1A looks at spectrum efficiency and band sharing (among other issues). Working Party 1B looks at spectrum management methods, flexible allocations, alternative approaches, economic strategies and long-term planning. Within SG3, Working Party 3K looks at short-range indoor and outdoor communication systems (including Wireless Local Area Networks), point-to-multipoint wireless access systems, etc. Meanwhile, ITU-R Task Group 1/8 is studying ultra-wideband (UWB) devices' compatibility with other radiocommunication services.

Unless you are a well-qualified radio engineer - or can write, think and speak like one - we would not recommend trying to participate in Study Group activities.

Study Group Questions

More than 400 Questions have been assigned to the ITU-R Study Groups. Here is a sampling of those relevant to Open Spectrum:

  • Question ITU-R 45-4/1: Techniques and technical criteria for frequency sharing - studies to be completed by 2005.
  • Question ITU-R 205-1/1: Long-term strategies for spectrum utilization - studies completed in 2003, results to be included in future Recommendations.
  • Question ITU-R 208/1: Alternative methods of national spectrum management - studies to be completed by 2005.
  • Question ITU-R 211-3/3: Propagation data and propagation models for the design of short-range wireless communication and access systems and wireless local area networks (WLAN) in the frequency range 300 MHz to 100 GHz.
  • Question ITU-R 213/1: Technical and operating parameters and spectrum requirements for short-range devices - studies to be completed by 2005.
  • Question ITU-R 217/1: Compatibility between short range devices operating within the band 59-64 GHz and industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) applications operating in the band 61-61.5 GHz - studies to be completed by 2005.
  • Question ITU-R 226/1: Spectrum management framework related to the introduction of ultra-wideband devices - initial studies to be completed by 2003.
  • Question ITU-R 230-1/8: Software-defined radio - studies to be completed by 2006.

ITU Recommendations

More than 900 ITU Recommendations concerning radiocommunication are now in effect.

  • List of ITU-R Recommendations and Reports (94 pages). A few that are relevant to license exemption include:
    • SM.1055: "The use of spread spectrum techniques"
    • SM.1056: "Limitation of radiation from industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) equipment"
    • SM.1132-2: "General principles and methods for sharing between radiocommunication services or between radio stations"
    • SM.1538-2: "Technical and operating parameters and spectrum requirements for short range radiocommunication devices"
    • SM.1756: "Framework for the introduction of devices using ultra-wideband technology"
  • "Updated version of 'Recommendation ITU-R SM.1538-1: Technical and operating parameters and spectrum requirements for short range radiocommunication devices'" (Question ITU-R 213/1). This version is dated 6 September 2004 and shows changes made from the 2003 version (762 kb):

    "...The ITU Radiocommunication Assembly... recommends... that these devices should not be restricted more than necessary in their use... There is a general agreement that when the efficient use of the frequency spectrum is not at risk and as long as harmful interference is unlikely, the installation and use of radio equipment may be exempt from a general licence or an individual licence. Short-range radiocommunication devices are generally exempt from individual licensing. However, exceptions may be made based on national regulations...

    "Although this Table represents the most widely accepted set of frequency bands for short-range radiocommunication devices it should not be assumed that all of these bands are available in all countries..."

Industrial, Scientific and Medical Devices (ISM)
within bands under Radio Regulations 5.138 and 5.150
6765 - 6795 kHz
13553 - 13567 kHz
26957 - 27283 kHz
40.66 - 40.70 MHz
2400 - 2483.5 MHz
5725 - 5875 MHz
24 - 24.25 GHz
61 - 61.5 GHz
122 - 123 GHz
244 - 246 GHz
Other commonly used frequency ranges
9 - 135 kHz:   Commonly used for inductive short-range radiocommunication applications
3155 - 3195 kHz:   Wireless hearing aids (RR 5.116)
402 - 405 MHz:   Ultra low power active medical implants (Rec. ITU-R SA.1346)
5150 - 5350 MHz:   Wireless access systems including radio local area networks (WRC-03 Res. 229)
5470 - 5725 MHz:   Wireless access systems including radio local area networks (WRC-03 Res. 229)
5795 - 5805 MHz:   Transport information and control systems (Rec. ITU R M.1453)
5805 - 5815 MHz:   Transport information and control systems (Rec. ITU-R M.1453)
76 - 77 GHz:   Transport information and control system - radar (Rec. ITU-R M.1452)

ITU footnotes related to these bands are gathered here on a separate page.


"As early as 1993 ITU-R Study Group 1 decided to study the spectrum management aspects of Short Range Communication Systems by adopting Question ITU-R 201/1 'Spectrum management aspects of short range communication systems'. It was intended that this Question would result in a recommendation [but until] 1997 the response to this Question was nil, not a single contribution being received to begin the work.

"A new attempt by ITU-R Study Group 1 started to address this topic in 1997 by adopting the new Question ITU-R 213/1 'Technical and operating parameters and spectrum requirements for short range devices'... However, when starting the drafting of the new recommendation, it soon became obvious that the differences between the three ITU Regions in handling SRDs were so significant... that a global solution could not be found. Hence, it was decided to develop a recommendation which consists of a common part describing the SRD applications and the commonly used frequency ranges... and a number of appendices in which the regulations for SRDs [in various] regions or countries are explained. This Recommendation, ITU-R SM.1538 'Technical and operating parameters and spectrum requirements for short-range radiocommunication devices', was first adopted in 2001 and is subject to revisions on a regular basis..."

---"Improving the effectiveness, flexibility and availability of spectrum for short-range devices,"
Document RAG07-1/17-E (contributed by Netherlands and Finland
to the ITU's Radiocommunication Advisory Group), 22 January 2007.

World Radio Conferences

The international Radio Regulations are revised every few years at World Radio Conferences. WRCs are major events, lasting 4 weeks and attracting thousands of national delegates and hundreds of observers. The most recent one (WRC-03, 9 June - 4 July 2003) was a breakthrough for license exempt radio: a non-exclusive but primary global allocation of 455 MHz was approved for "wireless access systems" (WAS) in the 5GHz band. Even though 43 countries joined in a footnote blocking WAS use of the 5.65-5.85 GHz band inside their borders, this new allocation is an important step.

  • "World Radio Conferences" by Tomas E. Gergely, US National Science Foundation's Summer School on Spectrum Management and Radio Astronomy (Green Bank, West Virginia, USA), June 2002. A good introduction to WRC processes and what they do.
  • Conference Preparatory Meeting Report to the World Radio Conference 2003 - summarizes the findings of the ITU Study Groups relevant to items on the WRC-03 agenda. The 5GHz band is discussed in Chapter 2 (pages 39-50).
  • Resolution 229 [COM5/16] (WRC-03): "Use of the bands 5150-5 250MHz, 5250-5350MHz and 5470-5725MHz by the mobile service for the implementation of wireless access systems including radio local area networks."
  • "The 5GHz Spectrum: Worldwide Availability," compiled by Net Dialogue's Clearinghouse on International Net Governance (actually covers just 30 countries).
  • "Observations from WRC-03" by Liching Sung, International Journal of Communications Law and Policy, Issue 8, Winter 2003-2004. Many national delegations wrote reports about WRC-03 which are available online. But we found this one by an academic observer to be unusually candid:
    "...the WLAN industry in Europe and the US lobbied for [5GHz] allocations in order to harmonize WLAN frequency use throughout the world, and to legitimize unlicensed WLAN operations in developing countries, many of which are not yet familiar with the concept of unlicensed or licensed-exempt radio services...
    "[Other] hints of fundamental change to the Radio Regulations were present at WRC-03. The conference passed [Resolution 952] to study Ultra-wideband (UWB)... Because it spans many bands, UWB calls into question the traditional, service-defined spectrum management framework. WRC-03 passed another resolution that directly challenges the assumption that segregating bands for different radio services is the best way to achieve spectrum efficiency. Entitled 'Options to improve the international spectrum regulatory framework,' [Resolution 951] cites the convergence of radio technologies, other emerging technologies that allow for flexible use of the spectrum, and spectrum management reform under consideration by some countries, as reasons why it is timely for the ITU to examine the effectiveness of the current Radio Regulations and to identify ways for improvements..."

We should also mention Resolution 63, which was revised at WRC-03 to call for urgent studies on limiting radio frequency emissions from Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) devices. These studies - which will be reported at WRC-07 - could effect unlicensed communications in the ISM bands.

WRC-07 is scheduled from 22 October to 16 November 2007 in Geneva, Switzerland. The chairman's report presenting the issues to be discussed is here.

  • Our comments to the European Commission's Radio Spectrum Policy Group on priorities and objectives for WRC-07.