The World of International Organizations Explained

ITU deal on 5G worries weather experts

A satellite image of a massive cyclone over the Labrador Sea between Canada’s Labrador Peninsula and Greenland on Nov. 17, 2019 (ARÊTE/NOAA)

Negotiators at a U.N.-sponsored telecommunication conference announced a deal on Friday to launch new radio frequency standards for 5G technology, despite concerns it could negatively impact climate and weather forecasting.

The World Radiocommunication Conference wrapped up four weeks of meetings in Egyptian resort town Sharm el-Sheikh with agreement over the use of additional radio frequency bands for 5G, or fifth-generation high-speed wireless technology. The scope of the conference was set a half-decade earlier.

Such conferences are held just once every three to four years by the 193-nation International Telecommunication Union based in Geneva. The conferences oversee Radio Regulations, a global treaty governing radio-frequency spectrum and geostationary-satellite and non-geostationary-satellite orbits.

The new agreements on additional “globally harmonized” frequency bands for 5G mobile technology were signed by 3,400 delegates from 165 nations that belong to ITU, a United Nations agency.

“5G is expected to connect people, things, data, applications, transport systems and cities in smart, networked communication environments,” the agency said in a statement at the end of the conference. “It will transport a huge amount of data much faster, reliably connect an extremely large number of devices and process very high volumes of data with minimal delay.”

ITU officials said the agreements included protections for the Earth-exploration satellite service, known as EESS, and for meteorological and other passive services in adjacent bands, such as the space research service, or SRS, to ensure space-based monitoring of Earth and the atmosphere continue unhindered.

“Satellite services supporting meteorology and climatology that aim to safeguard human life and natural resources will be protected from harmful radio-frequency interference, as will systems used by radio astronomers for deep space exploration,” the agency said, adding that radio astronomy stations would be protected from any harmful radio interference from other space stations or satellite systems in orbit.

Wireless companies are fast unfurling 5G offerings based on the work of U.N. technical experts that function as race directors behind the starting gates. The mobile industry is buzzing with promises of data speeds like those of landline broadband — cutting the time to download movies down to just seconds. The technology is poised to transform smartphones, home devices, self-driving cars and delivery drones.

But meteorologists say transmissions from 5G mobile technology could harm global weather forecasting by degrading the quality of Earth observations from space. Their concern is that some of the radio frequency bands being added are close to those used by satellites that gather climate and weather data.

‘Growing alarm’ among meteorologists

Last month, the World Meteorological Organization, headquartered close to ITU in Geneva, released a statement calling on governments to protect radio frequencies allocated to Earth observation services that are vital for weather forecasts and long-term climate change monitoring.

“There is growing alarm within the meteorological community that the increasing competition for bandwidths, including from the next-generation mobile phone data service, 5G, may be at the detriment of established applications relating to Earth observation satellites, radiosondes, aircraft, radar and other observing systems,” the U.N. weather agency said.

Eric Allaix, chair of WMO’s steering group on radio frequency coordination, said the agency was not trying to hamper the rollout of 5G technology but rather to ensure that it does not “encroach” on frequencies used for life-saving purposes such as weather prediction.

“There needs to be a balance between short term commercial and technological interests and long-term global well-being and safety,” he said. “We should not run the risk of reversing many of the gains in our warning services for natural hazards and thus potentially increasing loss of life and property.”

WMO’s main concern has been to protect the 23.6-24 gigahertz “passive” satellite observation frequency band that is adjacent to 5G technology’s 24.25-27.5 GHz band. The 23.8 GHz frequency, which can be mistaken for water vapor that satellites use to measure humidity, has been a particular worry. For years, WMO and ITU have worked together to protect special radio frequencies.

Studies by U.S. government agencies such as NASA, the U.S. Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also have found that 5G technology in the 24-gigahertz frequency band could interfere with polar-orbiting satellite transmissions that provide weather data.

Officials from the U.N. agency had said prior to the conference that their aim was to build consensus over competing demands for radio-frequency spectrum used for aeronautical, maritime, satellite, broadcasting, Earth observation, mobile broadband, amateur radio, railways and other purposes.

The conference agreements included protection for EESS with the possibility of providing worldwide primary allocation in the frequency band 22.55-23.15 GHz to allow its use for satellite tracking, telemetry and control. Mario Maniewicz, director of ITU’s radiocommunication bureau, said the agreements will help both “new communication technologies and the protection of existing services.”

ITU’s secretary-general, Houlin Zhao, said the agreements pave the way for new, more innovative ways to connect the world using communication technologies on land and in space. He predicted that as the technology is rolled out “people in the remotest areas will also get better and more affordable access.”

The world of international organizations explained.

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