Can Intelsat Solve the Battle Over Spectrum for 5G?

In response to a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) filed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in August, Intelsat and Intel have submitted a joint proposal on Oct. 2 that would expand the use of 3700-4200 MHz C-band spectrum to terrestrial mobile services. If the proposal is adopted, wireless operators would be able to leverage mid-band spectrum alongside satellite operators, who historically have resisted such sharing agreements due to concerns about interference. Via Satellite spoke with Intelsat’s Dianne VanBeber to get the insight on what this means for the industry.

Under the terms of the proposal, current spectrum licenses held by satellite operators would remain unchanged. Instead, companies such as SES and Intelsat would coordinate with mobile operators to clear portions of the C-band in specific geographic areas. More specifically, these agreements would center around major metropolitan areas, where wireless operators desire the densest coverage.

“It’s clear to us that a major impetus of the FCC is to identify spectrum that could be used to advance and accelerate 5G deployment,” VanBeber, Intelsat’s vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, told Via Satellite on Oct. 4.

The company’s goal, according to VanBeber, is to show the FCC that Intelsat is willing to explore ideas that work for all parties involved, rather than reject the notion of joint spectrum use altogether as the industry traditionally has.

“Our proposal is all about putting control in the hands of satellite operators — companies who have built businesses that have significant investments and important services to customers that need to be protected,” VanBeber said. “We would rather be on the proactive side for creating a path of what C-band could look like in the U.S. going forward.”

The companies’ proposal to the FCC suggests satellite operators could clear spectrum by moving their services and customers to another portion of the C-band, physically moving ground antennas outside of determined geographic areas, or “other means, as appropriate.”

“Intelsat and Intel propose that primarily affected Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) satellite operators be given the flexibility to enter into market-driven private agreements with one or more potential terrestrial mobile users of the cleared spectrum,” the two companies stated in comments submitted to the FCC. “The satellite licensees and terrestrial operators would negotiate the economic incentive necessary to permit satellite operators to undertake the costs and efforts necessary to clear satellite use of the agreed spectrum in the defined area.”

In the past, satellite operators (including Intelsat) have aggressively defended their mid-band spectrum license holdings, as C-band has become one of the most critical elements of telecommunications infrastructure in the United States. As the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) pointed out in its own response to the FCC’s NOI, nearly all video programming consumed in the U.S. travels over a C-band satellite at some point, “whether the viewer’s immediate service comes from a cable operator, Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), or Over-the-Top (OTT) provider, or via Free-to-Air (FTA) broadcast TV.”

Due to satellites’ inherently wide footprint, C-band supplies basic connectivity to remote communities where terrestrial infrastructure is limited, such as in parts of Alaska. According to SIA, C-band satellites also deliver content to more than 14,000 radio stations nationwide, which includes back-up emergency communications. And government organizations such as the U.S. Navy and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) use a significant amount of C-band for military satcom and to distribute weather reports and forecasts.

The FCC estimates there are approximately 4,700 licensed or registered Earth stations in the United States that use 3700-4200 MHz spectrum. Thousands more receive-only Earth stations operate on an unlicensed, unregistered basis.

As a result, C-band spectrum has become a limited and highly valuable commodity. However, due to its propagation characteristics — such as the signal’s resistance to rain fade — it has proved an attractive target for mobile operators as well, who seek additional spectrum to leverage for future 5G networks.

But because C-band receive antennas must be highly sensitive in order to communicate with far-off satellites, these Earth stations are very vulnerable to interference from nearby terrestrial transmitters. This has resulted in an elongated feud between terrestrial operators, who want to capitalize on the value 5G brings to the industry, and satellite operators, who fear evolving mobile networks could infringe upon their existing services and customers.

Pro-5G comments made earlier this year by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai have generated further concern within the satellite industry. “[5G] is going to be the dominant means by which people access the internet, the preferable means. And so I think the FCC needs to take stock of that and make the appropriate policy decisions as a result,” he said during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in May. Anticipating mounting pressure from both the FCC and mobile operators, Intelsat and Intel believe this proposal would enable 5G deployment while also satisfying anxieties about interference. The companies also stated that the proposal could bring mobile spectrum to market in just one to three years after an FCC Report and Order.

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