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Published on December 9th, 2015 | by EJC


The Invisible Resource That Disaster Warning Systems Depend On

Its New Years Eve, halftime at the Superbowl, or the end of a popular concert – and you can’t get phone service. Too many people are trying to connect, and there aren’t enough radio frequencies to connect them. Whilst this may be annoying, not many of us stop to think about the wider implications of this phenomena. Indeed, most of us do not realise that every time we ‘go wireless’ we are consuming a scarce natural resource. Be it connecting to wifi at a cafe, heating up a frozen meal in the microwave, or simply opening a garage door – we all utilise frequencies on the radio spectrum to connect and operate our worlds.


Yet, the number of radio frequencies available is not infinite; on the contrary, radio frequencies are scarce and, in an increasingly connected world, demand for spectrum is at an all time high.

Take, for example, frequency allocations in the United States. The following diagram provides an indication of how crowded the spectrum is, with only the white section at the beginning and slither of white at the end of the bar remaining unallocated as of 2011.


Source: Govt. USA

So what happens when demand for frequencies outpaces supply?

In short, crowding of the radio spectrum means that users will experience diminished capacity to connect or a lower data transmission quality. For most of us, this is more of an annoyance, but radio frequencies aren’t just used for personal communications.

Climate and meteorological organisations use radio frequencies to monitor the earth and the atmosphere in order to produce weather forecasts and disaster warnings. For these purposes, even a slightly inhibited capacity can have a huge impact on the ability to accurately detect disasters and issue warnings.

Is anything being done?

To ensure that radio frequencies are available to operate early warning systems, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) governs radio frequency allocations through an international treaty known as the Radio Regulations. Given the rapid pace of technological change, and subsequent shifts in frequency demands, these Regulations are updated by World Radiocommunication Conferences every four years.

In the lead up to this year’s Conference, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) issued a submission urging for greater protection of radio frequencies for earth observation and early warning sensors.

“The WMO Integrated Global Observing System (WIGOS) comprises components which make use of a wide number of different radio applications and services, some of which may be affected by WRC-15 Decisions. The dependency of observing systems on radio-frequency management has long term ramifications on the sustainability and usability of essential climate variables and other weather, water and climate related observations,” it stated.

The outcome and way forward

The WMO’s appeal was heeded, and the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference finished in November with updated Radio Regulations designed to protect special frequencies used by meteorological and hydrological services.

“WMO is pleased that the World Radiocommunication Conference has recognized the importance of earth observations and the sharing of related information to monitor climate change, which is the cause of melting ice caps and glaciers, increasing sea levels and warmer oceans, with record global temperatures and more extreme weather events,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud.

The Conference also acknowledged a need to continue monitoring radio frequency allocations, and protect earth observation allocations, in light of future technological changes.

“As the requirements of the ICT industry will increase, the threat for the scientific spectrum remains,” pronounced Jose Arimatea de Sousa Brito, Chair of the WMO Steering Group on Radio Frequency Coordination.

“WMO will continue to be engaged in the protection and management of radio frequencies, as well as in the allocation and/or identification of additional spectrum needed for meteorological operation and research.”

About the Author:

Madolyn Smith is an Editor at the European Journalism Centre (EJC). Since 2013, she has worked in a variety of media monitoring organizations across Europe and Australia, and has also consulted for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) in Bangkok, Thailand. She has a Bachelor in Political, Economic and Social Sciences from the University of Sydney and a Master in Media, Law and Journalism from the University of New South Wales.

Photo: Tim Regan

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