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WRC-15: Winning the Spectrum War

By | January 21, 2014

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      The upcoming WRC-15 conference will revive some old discussions and renovate the fight for C-band spectrum between terrestrial and satellite companies. But how can satellite win this battle once and for all?Attention wireless industry: Find another band. That’s the message the satellite industry has been shouting ever since mobile companies began seeking a global identification of C-band approximately eight years ago. And that same issue has heated up again.

      Now referred to as Agenda Item 1.1 at the upcoming the ITU World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC-15), some believe the challenges for the satellite industry will be greater than in the past, partly because the wireless industry has learned its lessons from WRC-07 and has been actively lobbying governments to join their side. In response, the satellite community has rolled up its sleeves by launching a worldwide campaign, encouraging everyone that relies on extended or standard C-band to help defend satellite’s position, offer realistic alternatives, and educate governments as to the severe consequences of allowing a global identification of the band for mobile companies.


      Same Battle, Different Technology

      For David Hartshorn, this battle is really déjà vu. As secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum (GVF), a London-based association that services the satellite communications industry, he vividly remembers the phone ringing at GVF’s main office back in 2006. Major satellite operators, manufacturers of satellite earth station equipment, and other members of the global association reported significant interference with the services they were providing. Did the association know what was happening? Was anyone else complaining?

      “We started to look into it and gradually, a body of evidence emerged, revealing that the interference could be tracked back to new incoming wireless services,” recalls Hartshorn. “In particular, it was WiMAX services and others that behaved like WiMAX.”

      At the time, WiMAX, defined by the WiMAX Forum as “a standards-based technology enabling the delivery of last-mile wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL,” and others in the wireless industry put their crosshairs on additional spectrum, specifically extended C-band. At WRC-07, they pleaded their case before every government in the world, seeking permission to use extended C-band for new types of wireless services. Referred to as Agenda Item 1.4, the wireless community lost — well, sort of. Despite the hot and heavy advocacy by the satellite industry, WRC’s decision denied global use but included a caveat: the government in each country could decide for itself. More than 60 countries opted in, reserving the right to permit these wireless broadband rollouts to occur using extended C-band.

      In time, this proved to be not such a great idea. For starters, many satellite applications in C-band support critical services. Hartshorn points to broadcasters, air traffic controllers, the U.S. Department of Defense for mission critical services, oil and gas companies for onshore and offshore communications, shipping companies for maritime communications, emergency responders in disaster zones who must communicate with the outside world, and the list goes on and on.

      He says WiMAX simply overwhelms the satellite’s signal at receiving stations or earth stations. “It’s like a steamroller going over the top of the signal, causing such massive interference that the satellite signal essentially drops,” he explains.

      Various service providers affected by this problem tried to reduce interference levels to acceptable levels by applying filters, barriers, and shields. But these approaches were either ineffective or prohibitively expensive, says Hartshorn, adding that multiple government regulators later instructed WiMAX operators to cease and desist services the use of extended C-band.

      However, in this new round of battles, Hartshorn says WiMAX is on the ropes, largely due to two factors: the introduction of fiber in major cities, which is often more price competitive than WiMAX, and the wireless industry pushing new technologies like small cells and LTE, claiming they will require much more spectrum to support the increased use of mobile devices.


      Make Love, Not War

      Hartshorn believes that the wireless and satellite industries should work in harmony since in many cases the two need each other to flourish. A good example is that cellular backhaul over satellite is helping mobile operators around the world extend their reach to non-urban areas. Among the key bands that the satellite industry uses to support mobile devices that need high reliability is C-band, which is robust even in regions prone to high rainfall density. In addition, recent deployments of satellite-backhauled small-cell services have demonstrated that the architecture enables wireless operators to offload data from their network and reduce traffic congestion.

      “The wireless industry would be missing a valuable opportunity by pursuing this band that the satellite industry can use to extend the wireless operators’ reach, enhance their competitiveness, and improve their bottom line,” Hartshorn says.

      Although past meetings with the WiMAX Forum did not result in an agreement, the GVF has re-engaged with the wireless industry to jointly explore how small cells are commercially synergistic with satellite. Meanwhile, despite ongoing tests that demonstrate the impracticality of wireless and satellite sharing extended C-band, he says the certain sectors of the wireless industry are still forging ahead with an even greater degree of force as they did in 2006.

      To prepare for WRC-15, GVF has revived its 2007 campaign and escalated its activities during the past year. Many of its staff, member companies, partners, and allies are meeting face-to-face with key government officials — as well as user groups that depend upon C-band satellite services — to better inform them about the issue and more forcefully advance the satellite industry’s position throughout the world.

      As part of their presentation, they show that only a small fraction of spectrum requested by WiMAX seven years ago was actually needed or used. “The wireless industry’s latest estimates of their spectrum needs are as grossly overstated now as they were in 2007 and we are demonstrating that to governments worldwide,” Hartshorn says.

      Others in the satellite community agree, including Gonzalo de Dios, associate general counsel at Intelsat. In 2007, he says the wireless community requested the identification of 1280 to 1720 MHz of IMT spectrum by 2020. But by 2015, he says the industry will seek an additional 163 to 1075 MHz of bands throughout the frequency spectrum range, including C-band downlink and uplink bands.

      “The satellite industry is concerned about renewed efforts to identify these bands for mobile companies,” he says. “Technical studies that were conducted leading up to WRC-07 demonstrated incompatibility between FSS and IMT systems in these bands. Since 2007, there have been no technology developments that change the compatibility analysis, and the ITU-R studies that have been conducted to date by the satellite industry are reinforcing the previous conclusions.”

      Since spectrum is essential for both satellite and wireless systems, de Dios says Intelsat is trying to understand the spectrum needs of the wireless industry, both now and in the future. The company also participates in the Satellite Spectrum Initiative, coordinated by GVF. The campaign’s goal is to deploy its assets around the world to effectively communicate with industry regulators, government policy makers, and others about the importance of preserving C-band for the satellite community. He adds that Intelsat, SES, Inmarsat, and other satellite operators, users, and service providers are working hard to ensure that this message is reflected across regional and international regulatory proceedings involving this issue. Likewise, SES also saw the warning signs and knew that the quest for more IMT spectrum would return to the WRC table, says Gerry Oberst, senior vice president, global regulatory and government strategy at SES.

      Oberst says SES began pushing for a coordinated and industry-wide effort to advance its position that C-band is not a suitable band for IMT development due to its incompatibility with existing FSS services worldwide. He also believes that IMT’s demand is based on “overly optimistic assumptions, which is proven by the fact that today, much of the spectrum that is already identified for IMT has not even been implemented.”

      SES is working together with GVF, the European Satellite Operator’s Association (ESOA) and other regional groups to ensure its global message is heard and even more important, understood. It also actively participates in ITU meetings, such as the JTG-4-5-6-7, where it provided studies confirming that IMT and FSS remain technically incompatible.

      “Naturally we speak to many regulators on a regular basis where we stress this point,” says Oberst. “C-band remains a critical part of the FSS family in the services that it makes possible.”


      Possible Solutions

      Due to technological advancements, de Dios says the wireless community can use its existing spectrum more efficiently. He explains that its deployment architecture, which is based on the use of wide-coverage macro-cells, can now use smaller coverage micro-cells to significantly increase capacity within frequency bands that are currently used.

      “Additionally, an increasingly large portion of mobile data is being off-loaded to Wi-Fi networks, which frees up some of the mobile spectrum for re-use,” says de Dios. “Portions of spectrum that have been identified regionally (like in Europe) for IMT for several years, still remain unused, which begs the question why additional spectrum needs to be identified for wireless systems.”

      Another candidate band for IMT spectrum is the C-band downlink, between 3.4 and 4.2 GHz, according to Yvon Henri, chief, space services department at the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau. Based in Geneva, ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies and acts as a forum for governments and industry to coordinate technical and policy matters related to global telecoms networks and services.

      Henri explains that ITU-R studies have demonstrated that sharing between broadband mobile applications and fixed satellite services was not feasible within areas delineated by minimum required separation distances, which could not apply to both services that are ubiquitous by nature. The only solution would then be frequency segregation. For example, the lower part of this band would be used for broadband while the upper portion would continue to be allocated for satellite.

      Through the ITU, he says both communities — terrestrial and satellite — would develop a list of additional spectrum for mobile broadband application that is compatible with satellite existing frequency allocations and reach an agreement at WRC-15.

      But for now, de Dios says players in the satellite industry need to develop and relay consistent messaging and help educate various user communities of the C-band spectrum so they can become effective advocates with their local regulators. He says broadcasters, programmers, space agencies, humanitarian organizations, the maritime community, equipment manufacturers, launch service providers, and civil aviation agencies need to join this grass roots movement to ensure that a fair compromise is reached.

      As complementary technologies, de Dios says there is plenty of room for both. Satellite often provides the “middle mile” to a wireless “last mile” solution. However, he explains that no one can ignore how critical services delivered in many world regions can’t be replicated in other satellite bands due to factors like spectral degradation.

      De Dios envisions this issue to be hotly debated at WRC-15. He says both sides have been mobilizing their forces, ready to face-off. Even when considering worst-case scenario — the ITU identifying a band for mobile companies with wireless devices — nothing will change overnight. Before implementing their system in any country, he says wireless companies must go through an extensive process, observing each nation’s rules and procedures.

      “Given the wide disparity of C-band by countries and that many regions of the world have not even exhausted the non C-band frequencies that are allocated for wireless broadband,” continues de Dios, “it is hard to see whether the wireless community would be harmed in any meaningful way if the outcome of WRC-15 [regarding C-band] is ‘No Change.’”

      However, John Medeiros is expecting new frequencies to be allocated for wireless users, though hopefully not in the C-band. As chief policy officer at CASBAA, an association based in Hong Kong that represents the interests of media and broadcast throughout Asia, he notes that governments are sorting through all kinds of frequency bands and points to a consultation paper from the Australian government that poses several possibilities. He says CASBAA has taken a firm stance on this issue.

      “We accept the legitimacy of allocating spectrum for wireless, and growth for wireless video communications will be an important cornerstone of the video delivery industry going forward. But C-band is not the best for broadband wireless applications. Other frequency bands should be studied and allocated for wireless services,” Medeiros says.

      Besides, he adds that C-band has been in effective operation for decades. Consider Asia, which Medeiros says is more dependent than other world regions on C-band. Many of the Asian markets are located within the tropical or subtropical belt and rely on C-band as their lifeline. As a result, regional C-band channel feeds support roughly 470 million homes that are connected to pay-TV systems and rely on programming from C-band. Sharing doesn’t work for these technologies, Medeiros says.

      “Terrestrial systems drown out the satellite signal, which has been demonstrated in a number of countries that already made this mistake,” Medeiros warns. “TV signals are washed out. That’s certainly not acceptable to our member companies nor the 470 million consumers who are watching TV.”

      CASBAA is spreading this message among all the countries in Asian tropical regions to ensure they muster the same organized clout as other countries attending WRC-15. “The biggest challenge is educating government officials who are making these decisions,” Medeiros says. “


      Collaborate, Then Compromise

      Decades ago, C-band was the first frequency band operated by satellite for commercial telecommunications. Since then, it has been used by the industry and governments for many communication transmissions, including VSAT, DTH, aviation security, and disaster relief.

      Today, more than one-third of satellite frequency assignment registered at ITU is used for C-band satellite communications, according to Henri at ITU.

      “There has been an increasing recording of C-band FSS assignments at ITU from year 2000 onward,” he says. “That shows the continued, crucial importance of C-band for satellite companies.”

      Henri says that a fair long-term solution is needed not only for protecting existing satellite services, but also for opening new bands that may come into play for mobile broadband services. Wireless broadband companies aren’t the bad guys, he says. They’re simply trying to find enough “harmonized” worldwide spectrum to support their industry’s tremendous growth and consumer demand for mobile products and services. He encourages everyone in both the wireless and satellite industries to work together within the ITU WRC preparatory process and brainstorm ideas well before WRC-15.

      “Study all possible scenarios,” he says, adding that end-users want seamless services and do not care if their devices rely on satellite or wireless technology. “At this stage, however, it would be rather damaging for both communities if mobile broadband application was to enter into existing FSS C-band allocation. Hopefully, ongoing ITU studies will offer alternative solutions for mobile broadband applications that are clear for everybody — mobile and space services.”


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