U.S. telecom regulators approved to allow 5G signals in the same spectrum currently used for satellite television broadcasts. The unanimous vote by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and the agency’s three commissioners lays the groundwork for the transition of some, or possibly all of the 500 megahertz of spectrum commonly known as C-band.
Exactly how much spectrum will be determined through the processes outlined in the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which detailed a four-step plan to make C-band accessible for 5G communications?
The order also requires users of C-band satellite dishes in the U.S. to license their dishes with the FCC (and update existing licenses), enforcing what was previously a voluntary process so that regulators can understand how heavily the band is used.
Intelsat and SES, the world’s two largest geostationary satellite operators, along with chip-maker Intel and, as of today Eutelsat, back a plan to free up 100 MHz of C-band as long as new users cover the cost of migrating customers and lost opportunities. The NPRM gives multiple pathways for the expanded use of C-band, including market-based methods like the plan satellite operators put forward, spectrum auctions (favoured by T-Mobile), and alternative methods. The FCC is seeking comment on the best way forward.
Asian satellite operators oppose “U.S. approved”
Several Asian satellite operators argued that the situation in the U.S. differs strongly from the situation in Asia. However, both have one thing in common — insufficient data on how widely C-band is actually used.
“Worldwide we really don’t know how many C-band receive-only antennas there are,” Baozhong said. A Chinese study from 2007 found more than 20 million C-band dishes in use, he said, but the current number is unknown. Fenech estimated Indonesia has 10 to 13 million C-band dishes for television broadcast services. JSAT’s Akao said the number of C-band dishes in Japan is “small,” but still important.
Satellite operators in Asia say the debate over C-band in the United States is triggering similar discussions in their markets, causing concern that cellular operators could end up in control of the spectrum in other parts of the world. While next-generation 5G networks are nearing deployment in the U.S., Europe and other technologically advanced areas like South Korea, several operators argued that most of Asia is still developing and has strong need for C-band satellite services. “My personal belief is that Intelsat sold out the industry,” Roger Tong, AsiaSat’s recently appointed CEO, said at the CASBAA Satellite Industry Forum.
Intelsat and Intel have proposed letting 5G networks use some C-band spectrum in cases where it is strongly needed provided cellular operators compensate satellite operators for transition costs and lost business. SES backed Intelsat and Intel’s proposal when they agreed to clear only 100 MHz of the band instead of all 500 MHz allocated for satellite in the U.S.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission included some of Intelsat and Intel’s suggestions in a notice of proposed rulemaking it issued June 21 in preparation for a July 12 vote. “Once they get [C-band], they won’t stop,” Tong said of cellular operators. “They will be more and more bandwidth hungry, they will claim to have more devices out there, and they will claim that their market segment is expanding so they have to expand the spectrum.”
“This is a disaster for the whole industry,” said Huang Baozhong, executive vice president at APT Satellite. “I am 100 percent sure that most other countries will follow and then this will be spread all over the world.”
Baozhong said he fears the 100 MHz offered to mobile network operators is unlikely to be enough. “They will take another 100 or 200, [until] finally all the C-band will be gone,” he said. “What’s happening in the U.S. is having an impact in our region,” said Clare Bloomfield, director of policy and research at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA). CASBAA has consulted several governments including the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Australia on C-band, she said.
Jim Simpson, CEO of ABS, said cellular companies are striving to convince telecom regulators across Asia that they need C-band more than satellite operators — a claim less easily defended in Asia because of the spectrum’s ability to get signals through rainstorms better than Ka- and Ku-band. “I agree they will need more bandwidth, but they are not going to be needing as much as they get,” he said. “And frankly, satellite should be a very complementary activity for them in multiple different areas because we really are pretty beneficial from a 5G perspective.”
Jean-François Fenech, CEO of Eutelsat Asia, disagreed with other panelists, saying he doesn’t foresee a fight over C-band coming to Asia. “The good thing I observe is many of the countries have national satellite systems which are operating in C-band, so I don’t see how they would shoot in their own foot if they believe satellite in C-band is good for them,” he said.
India’s GSAT-17, Laos’ LaoSat-1 and Bangladesh’s Bangabandhu-1 satellite — all launched within the past few years — carry C-band payloads for telecom services in Asia. Last year Eutelsat also launched a satellite — Eutelsat-172b — with C-band coverage of the Asia Pacific. Sky Perfect JSAT’s Mitsutoshi Akao, executive officer and group president of the Japanese operator’s Global Business Group Space & Satellite Business Unit, said the Japanese government likes to follow U.S. decisions, and that his company is discussing with the Japanese government the importance of C-band.
War with less blood
The FCC kicked off discussions on how to make more spectrum available for 5G last year, fearing that the U.S. would fall behind other countries in preparing for the next generation of high-speed communications. “If we make headway here, we can start to reclaim that lost leadership in spectrum that’s so critical for 5G networks,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the ruling. Mobile network operators have long had eyes on C-band, which in the U.S. ranges from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, as a large swath of contiguous spectrum with favourable signal propagation characteristics.
Pai, speaking July 12 ahead of the vote, said the FCC wanted to “identify a mechanism that will unleash activity in this band like the $3,000 bounty placed on the shark in Jaws, but with … less bloodletting” referencing the popular 1975 film. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the satellite industry’s willingness to cooperate on ways to use C-band instead of resisting the change made for a rare opportunity to have a less painful transition. “[It] just so happens that the current primary users, certain satellite providers, are receptive to reducing [their] footprint,” he said. “It’s rare you see the stars align to execute a large change in spectrum policy.”
O’Rielly said he was pleased to support the NPRM, but cautioned that the 100 MHz offered from satellite operators is unlikely to be sufficient. “I’ve advocated for 200 to 300 Megahertz, with a serious review to release even more,” he said. While ceding more spectrum would upset satellite operators, O’Rielly’s other remarks about the urgency of spectrum reallocations may give them relief.
The O’Rielly said the reallocation “needs to happen quickly,” not in five or 10 years. Intelsat, Intel and SES while championing their plan for the past several months have said a market-based approach could open up C-band in three years or less. Regulatory mandates would be more difficult and require considerably more time, they argued. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the satellite industry plan “could provide the quickest path to clearing spectrum, and do so without the issues that arise when the commission begins imposing mandates.”
Carr, citing financial analysts’ predictions that 2021 will be the year of peak investment in 5G infrastructure, encouraged taking a market-based approach, saying it “makes the most sense to move forward with options that have the best shot at bringing the spectrum online during the initial 5G rollout.” Intelsat, in a statement provided to SpaceNews, said it is “pleased with the emphasis on the need for speed and the benefits of a market-based solution.” “The satellite operators — Intelsat, SES and now joined by Eutelsat — will work to demonstrate our ability to efficiently implement our market-based proposal, protecting the C-band services environment from disruptive interference while clearing spectrum to accelerate the era of 5G in the U.S.,” Intelsat said.