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The Struggle for C-Band Has Raged for Years – From our Archive

By Mark Holmes | October 5, 2017

Intelsat made waves this week with its proposal to jointly use C-band spectrum alongside terrestrial wireless operators. Ten years ago, the issue looked quite different. In this article from our archives, we discussed the issue with execs from Intelsat, SES, AsiaSat, and ABS. The battle over mid-band spectrum has raged for years;  — but is there a light at the end of the tunnel? This story was originally published in the August 2007 issue of Via Satellite.


Satellite operators have faced spectrum battles in the past, but with huge and hungry telecommunications firms lobbying to gain more access to C-band for their next-generation wireless services, satellite players may face their toughest spectrum fight yet. With a key International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meeting set to begin later this year, satellite operators and their customers are in a race against time to put together compelling arguments to make sure C-band spectrum remains reserved for satellite services and is not lost to a powerful and well-financed competitor.

The fight over C-band spectrum is bringing out strong feelings from many in the satellite industry, with some believing this battle cannot be lost due to the dollars at stake as well as the importance of C-band for delivering services in many parts of the globe. “Major terrestrial-wireless interests are lobbying for C-band spectrum to be reallocated for next-generation broadband wireless access and IMT 2000 services to the exclusion of satellite services,” says David Hartshorn, secretary general, Global VSAT Forum. “If these efforts are successful it would represent a loss of billions of dollars per year and a severe blow to the millions of users that have come to depend upon C-band satellite services throughout the world. … Not to put too fine a point on it, but for many users preservation of the band for delivery of satellite services is literally a matter of life and death.”

Understanding the Value

The ITU will be taking up the C-band issue at the World Radiocommunication Conference, which is scheduled to begin in October in Geneva. Agenda item 1.4, will cover identification of future spectrum for development of wireless services, generically known as international mobile telecommunications (IMT). The terrestrial operators want more access to extended C-band frequencies ranging from 3.4 gigahertz to 3.7 gigahertz, and providing them access could interfere with satellite services that are provided using the entire C-band spectrum.

This is a dual threat to the satellite industry, says Kalpak Gude, vice president for regulatory affairs at Intelsat. “You have the WiMax group which is concentrating on the 3.4-to-3.6 gigahertz band, or the lower portion of C-band. The second group is called the IMT, and this is fourth-generation wireless. They are looking more aggressively at the entire 3.4-to-4.2 band.”

Robert Bednarek, CEO of SES New Skies, says the threat to satellite players is “pretty significant,” and that satellite’s arguments about the importance of C-band spectrum potentially are being hampered by misperceptions. Correcting these misperceptions is vital ahead of the ITU meeting. “First, there is the notion that for some reason the C-band is underutilized or unused, which is absolutely incorrect,” he says. “Second, there is the perception that IMT and WiMax are vitally needed services for which there are no other alternatives at this point. The third misperception is how the spectrum process works and how regulators weigh the relative merits of the competing claims for the spectrum. What appears to be happening is that there is a vendor-manufacturer dominated coalition pushing WiMax and IMT without really defining the business models that would be used and the customers that they would be addressing and how they would even work.”

Satellite players have invested heavily in to provide services using C-band spectrum. “There are more than 160 satellites that use C-band. That is a $40 billion-plus investment in capital,” says Bednarek. “I don’t know the exact revenue figures across the industry or the hundreds of million of user involved, but every cable TV household in [the United States] is receiving some portion of its programming via C-band satellite. Most cable systems around the world receive some portion of their video programming via C-band. That is only the beginning. You have the interconnections and GSM trunking. Disruption of this global activity must be part of the discussion about the speculative future services promised by others.”

If access to parts of the C-band spectrum were lost, many of those investments would simply be lost as well. “C-band has been an essential part of the Asian satellite industry for the last 30 years contributing a considerable percentage of its revenue,” says AsiaSat CEO Peter Jackson. “AsiaSat, like most Asian satellite operators, would be significantly negatively affected if the C-band frequency became unusable. Satellites are currently built to last 15 years, and we have no ability to change the frequency once they are launched. So if the frequency was reallocated, the industry would end up with billions of dollars worth of equipment in the air not producing revenue.”

Understanding the importance of these issues beyond the simple value of the satellites and resulting business also is vital to satellite’s argument, says Gude. “We want to make sure that governments and industry understand the value of the services currently provided in C-band,” he says. “Video distribution is one of them but not the only one by any means. In many parts of the world the cellular networks do not work if you lose C-band. VSAT networks for business transactions are often riding over C-band services as well. That is why we are trying to inform customers of the scale and scope of the services in C-band. We have suggested to governments that given the value and critical nature of the satellite C-band services they will either have to locate a different frequency band for IMT [and] WiMax services or find a new telecommunications network that can provide services currently operating in the C-band. With respect to the latter, we do not believe that either the network or technology exists to provide these services cost effectively in an alternative manner to current satellite C-band.”

IMT and WiMax players going after this portion of spectrum is the equivalent of satellite players going after spectrum which is traditionally used for pure wireless services, says Bednarek. “Terrestrial equipment manufacturers and operators aspire to offer new services which may have value but essentially they want satellite spectrum that is being used for valuable services and simply wish to place their own services there,” he says. “The equivalent would be the satellite industry saying we prefer to keep analog transmissions and thus we need yet more spectrum and thus would like the 3G band allocated to satellite.”

The Potential Losers

While the satellite industry itself has much to lose if the C-band spectrum is reallocated, the loss of services supplied via this spectrum would have an impact on lives around the globe. “There are hundreds of applications which are supported by C-band satellites,” says Bednarek. “Many of these have vital economic roles. For someone to come along and say that terrestrial residential broadband access using an unproven business model where other technological alternatives are well embedded trumps all of those services, it is just not appropriate.”

In places such as Asia, satellite-based C-band services play a vital role, says Gude. “I think there is a growing understanding of the importance of C-band services to them, particularly when it comes to high rain zone areas or areas which require much broader coverage in terms of land mass,” he says. “You just cannot provide these services cost-effectively in any other band or in any other way than using satellite services for those applications. In high rain zones, C-band tends to be largely impervious to rain fade, making this band the most reliable for service distribution. The large beam coverages also allow for the extension of telecommunications networks to rural and low population density areas in a way that other technologies cannot.”

Tom Choi, CEO of Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) also sees potential catastrophe in the Asia-Pacific region if access to the spectrum is lost. ABS operates 28 C-band transponders over the region, which represents more than 60 percent of the company’s capacity. “We are deeply concerned about the use of WiMax in the C-band spectrum,” he says. “ABS, like any other satellite operators in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region, would be severely impacted if all of the C-band capacity would not be usable for our customers.”

While ABS and other satellite players would be hurt, Choi also believes many other industries in Asia would suffer. “The loss of C-band for satellite communications would impact a much bigger set of industries, including the GSM-cellular operators, telecommunications companies that use satellites for backhaul communications or fiber back-up services, and, most importantly, cable television broadcasters who require reliable means of delivering their signals to systems without being impacted by rain fade,” he says. “The total cost to the global economy would be in untold billions. It would affect almost everyone in the region where C-band is vital to television broadcasting and mobile communications.”

There also would be huge ramifications for populations in Latin America and Africa if satellite players’ arguments ultimately fall on deaf ears. “In recent years, some of the largest deployments of VSAT services have been for users in developing countries,” he says. “For example, more than 125,000 university students in Brazil are being educated right now via satellite. The African Virtual University links more than a dozen academic institutions across the continent. Many thousands of primary and secondary students are being educated via satellite throughout Mexico at more than 60,000 locations.

Governments in these regions also are using C-band satellite services to implement a broad range of programs such as telehealth, rural telecenters, cyber cafes, post offices, air traffic control, small and medium enterprises, oil and gas concerns, mining, forestry, banking and other financial services, says Hartshorn. “The very fabric of society in developing countries is being enabled by these satellite services,” he says.

Strong Arguments

While sheer strength and size gives the telcos an advantage in the debate over which provider should have access to the spectrum, momentum for satellite’s arguments seems to be finding favor. While he admits there is still a lot of “uncertainty” regarding this issue, Hartshorn believes there is a growing realization of the importance of satellite as regards C-band. “In the Americas, for example, there is a growing list of nations that have officially confirmed their support for C-band satellite services,” he says. “In Asia, national administrations such as India, Pakistan and Malaysia have postponed implementation of spectrum reallocations that would have adversely impacted on C-band satellite services. The Arab region is also strongly against interruption of C-band satellite services, and in Africa — where Nigcomsat, the region’s first indigenous C-band satellite program, was launched a few weeks ago — policy makers and regulators have elevated this matter on their agenda.”

However, the threat is not going to go away. “Terrestrial-wireless interests will continue to use their muscle to try to gain access to the spectrum,” says Hartshorn. “These are some of the largest telecom companies in the world, some of which have been lobbying governments in developing countries for at least five years. Our organization was fighting against these efforts in developing countries as far back as 2001. The fight isn’t finished.”

The satellite industry can improve its position by making more efficient use of the C-band spectrum, says Danny Lau, assistant director, operations for the Office of the Telecommunications Authority, the telecoms regulator of Hong Kong. “While many satellite players have been deploying spectrum efficient technologies in order to increase the capacity to be carried in their satellite transponders, the satellite users in many countries are reluctant to cooperate,” he says. “Most of them are still using analog receiving terminals because analog systems are much cheaper. This does not make efficient use of radio spectrum in the C-band. It is unlikely these users will automatically switch to use digital systems if they can still continuously receive satellite TV programmes in analog form. Thus, it seems that there is room for improving the efficiency in the use of the spectrum in the C-band.

“If the spectrum policy of a country is to ensure efficient use of spectrum, and if satellite players have not maximized spectrum efficiency in the C-band, the country will certainly support the allocation of some spectrum in the C-band to telecom players,” says Lau. “However, in many developing countries, satellite services are wholly or partially state-owned. The loss of spectrum in the C-band for satellite services may have financial implication. They may have additional consideration in casting a vote on such decision.”

After a slow start in rallying much of the industry to action, satellite players now believe they have many compelling arguments to allow them to hang onto this part of C-band spectrum, but the concern that they will not remains high even though the industry’s message is becoming more widely known. Kenneth Carrigan, senior systems engineer, U.S. Navy believes the financial “muscle” of WiMax and IMT players could play a role here. “Commerce seems to be playing a major role in selling of spectrum,” he says. “While commercial markets for WiMax are feasting on new spectrum for new markets. The ITU is bent on selling more and more spectrum for broadband wireless access. It is our intent to try to steer ITU out of C-band and to show why C-band is not optimal for IMT or IMT advanced.”

While the financial strength of the terrestrial players is considerable, some in the satellite arena are surprised that the debate has come this far. “I appreciate the complex issues faced by governments in allocating spectrum, but to allocate to WiMax a frequency which in a large numbers of countries is currently being used by satellites for essential services does not make sense,” says Jackson.

While the telcos may have a financial advantage, the satellite players have the technical advantage, says Robert Ames, CEO of the Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group. “It seems that the WiMax issue is driven forward with a focus on the financial rewards without taking into consideration the technical concerns,” he says. “For the satellite community, however, we have to keep our focus on the technical concerns. That’s the only way to ensure that our industry doesn’t fall into financial disaster.”

If the decision comes down to precedent, that technical argument should work in favor of the satellite industry, says Scott Calder, CEO of Mainstream Data. “I am very concerned by the proposed changes to the rules at the next WRC,” he says. “It is a well-established precedent that new applications are not permitted to interfere with currently licensed applications, or to drive them off the air when they provide critical human and financial services. This is especially true when those applications include transmission of financial markets’ data, telemedicine applications for healthcare providers and disaster recovery communications for distressed communities and regions. If broadband wireless is granted portions of the C and extended-C-bands, organizations and millions of individuals may suffer real economic harm … likely measured in billions of dollars.”

While the concerns are real, Christopher Baugh, CEO of NSR, believes that satellite services are so entrenched in the spectrum that the industry is not likely to see an ITU decision along the lines of some of the doomsday scenarios. “C-band is to satellite what fixed-line telephony is to telcos,” he says “Even if it is 40 years old, we still use it everyday and are not about to throw it out, or in the case of landline, cut it just because we have a cell phone.

“WiMax offers both threats and opportunities to the satellite industry, and it is incumbent that telcos, cellular companies, wireless ISPs and satellite players jointly seek solutions to interference issues,” says Baugh. “… Citizens in Latin America, Africa and Asia would have a hard time connecting to the World Wide Web, completing cellular phone calls abroad or to other countries, or talking on the fixed line phone to their families overseas. This is, of course, the worst case scenario and unlikely for all C-band spectrum users.”

Bottom Line

The events of the next several months are likely to have huge ramifications on the global satellite industry, as many in the satellite industry have spelled out the importance of satellite “winning” this battle. Losing even a portion of C-band spectrum to other telecommunications providers is not an option, and if that were to happen, there would be no silver lining. Satellite operators in Asia and Africa would have their business plans hugely impacted, and users who rely on satellites for communication and vital services could find they are no longer able to access to such services. The issue expands far beyond a simple telecoms versus satellite debate.