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REGULATORY REVIEW: The Great Game–Satellite Spectrum Wars

By | December 10, 2000

      by Gerry Oberst

      Just as the conflicts raged between the British and expanding Russian empires across Central Asia in the 19th century, battles between terrestrial and satellite operators are fought in many contexts and places. But the prize in all these battlefields is the same–access to territory. In the case of the satellite conflict, this means access to spectrum territory. A recent proceeding before the FCC, considering proposals that could limit access by earth stations to spectrum shared with terrestrial services, is one of the latest chapters in this struggle.

      A few years ago the big debate seemed to be cable versus satellite. The fiber optics cables across the ocean, and the cable TV systems across local communities, were deadly competitors that could overwhelm or make satellite services irrelevant. Nevertheless, satellite has not really suffered in this conflict, as digital satellite broadcasting has taken on tens of millions of subscribers. Many of these subscribers come at the expense of cable operators, and satellite operators have found new markets to provide links for trendy new Internet applications, like caching and transmitting to the “edge of the Net.”

      The big fight–the Great Game–is with terrestrial wireless applications, which by their spectrum occupancy can prevent satellite systems from operating at all. Vast new demands for transmission channels and new services are clogging up available spectrum and causing new battles over frequencies to break out.

      The latest phase of the game will be played before the FCC, which in the near future will be examining comments on a proposal allegedly designed to level the playing field for access by terrestrial and satellite operators to shared spectrum. But this proceeding could handicap satellite services in order to help the supposedly disadvantaged terrestrial operators.

      The FCC released a notice of proposed rulemaking in late October that covers a lot of territory, including new licensing for Ka-band earth stations as well as very small aperture C-band antennas, which the FCC would call CSATs to distinguish them from VSATs. The most controversial part of the FCC’s notice, however, concerns arguments from the terrestrial operators that band sharing rules are disadvantageous to their fixed services. Their main beef is that the FCC licenses earth stations for the entire allocated band with no loading requirements, while terrestrial links are limited to frequencies actually needed, with strict spectrum efficiency requirements. Also, the terrestrial operators argue that earth stations can block coordination to terrestrial stations too easily by initially coordinating with the full orbital arc of domestic satellites.

      The FCC rejected outright some suggestions from the terrestrial operators. For example, the agency said it would be impractical to require satellite earth station operators to show “actual need” in advance, as it does for terrestrial operators. Satellite and terrestrial services have architectural and operational differences, as the FCC specifically recognized. For that same reason, the FCC rejected the proposal to license earth stations only for a part of the spectrum range, under a so-called “partial-band licensing” approach.

      Nevertheless, to support its overall policy of spectrum efficiency, the FCC proposes to require earth station operators to show they are actually using, or have imminent plans to use, spectrum when a terrestrial operator seeks to coordinate conflicting C- or Ku-band operations.

      The proposed new rules would not apply to any satellite earth station that has been licensed for less than 24 months. But after that cut off, denial of an erstwhile terrestrial operator’s coordination request would trigger a requirement for the earth station operator to demonstrate how much the spectrum had been used within the past 24 months, any current use at the time of the request and plans for imminent use, such as within the next six months.

      Many tricky questions immediately arise, starting with how to define “use” of a frequency, especially by earth station operators that might transmit to many different satellites using many different transponders over a 24-month period. The FCC also asks many questions about how to apply spectrum efficiency standards to satellite earth stations. And there are other technical elements of the proposals, dealing with circumstances under which earth station operators accept certain levels of interference or coordinate over the entire arc of azimuths (corresponding to the entire range of satellites serving that area).

      In some respects, the proposed solutions seem to be placing the cart before the horse, since the FCC is also asking for comment on whether there is any large-scale problem with sharing between terrestrial and satellite operators. The satellite industry argued against the original terrestrial submission to the FCC, saying that satellites are subjected to their own set of technical efficiency rules, such as two degree spacing for satellites in orbit, and there are strong incentives to use bandwidth efficiently.

      So the Great Game continues–and the satellite industry should comment, early and often, in response to the FCC notice.

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. He is pleased to write this, his 100th consecutive monthly regulatory column for Via Satellite, on the eve of the real millennium. The FCC proceeding is IB Docket No. 00-203.

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