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Common Ground: Spectrum Sharing–Who Gets The Bigger Piece?

By | January 10, 2001

      By Clayton Mowry

      My son Nathaniel is only one-and-a-half years old but he’s already learned the concept of sharing. When his pal Lucy comes by to play, he knows he can’t keep all the toys to himself. It’s the same thing when it comes to spectrum. For years the satellite industry has gotten along famously with terrestrial fixed wireless services sharing C- and Ku- band spectrum through a process called coordination.

      Now the regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other national regulatory bodies around the world are getting into the act. As spectrum becomes a scarcer resource, and as auctions fill the treasury coffers, the regulators think they should encourage even more sharing–and sell more spectrum rights. The problem is, the engineers no longer appear to be the ones making the decisions. Now we have well-meaning but technically challenged lawyers or bean counters making the call.

      Take the Northpoint case. Despite the fact that two major direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service providers in the United States. have racked up 15 million new subscribers since 1994 and provide the only real competition to cable TV, the FCC wants to make BSS spectrum available to yet another terrestrial wireless service. The regulatory powers seem to ignore the fact that DBS and non-geostationary (NGSO) fixed satellite services such as Skybridge completed the necessary technical work at the ITU to figure out how to share the band. They seem willing to risk increasing the number of service outages due to greater terrestrial interference, all in the name of providing spectrum to yet another fixed wireless service.

      Technical studies by both DBS providers (Echostar and DirecTV) indicated serious problems would result from allowing Northpoint access to the band. Consumers will have no idea that it’s another wireless service that causes them to lose their satellite TV in the middle of the nightly news or a pay-per-view movie. But you have to give Northpoint credit. They hired the best lobbyists money could buy to influence the decision and encourage the FCC to open up the satellite band. Something like this would never happen to the all- powerful broadcast TV industry in the United States.

      In a similar case, an outfit called Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition (FWCC) has convinced the FCC that satellites are inefficient users of C- and Ku-band spectrum in urban areas. Never mind that satellites enable a host of other communications and entertainment services including broadcast TV and radio, cable television, as well as long distance and mobile messaging industries valued at over $300 billion.

      The FWCC wants the Commission to limit the ability of earth stations to access satellites across the continental U.S. (CONUS) arc by licensing satellite services like terrestrial fixed services. If a satellite earth station isn’t fully loaded in a particular urban location and can’t demonstrate an immediate need for frequencies, then the fixed services will get access to spectrum. That will shut out the earth station’s ability to access various satellites in the future.

      The notion is both bad policy and precedent setting. New satellite services are being rolled out in the Ku- BSS-/Ka-/V- bands to provide services to ubiquitous ground terminals. The very nature of these satellite services requires frequency separation from terrestrial services in order to allow universal service. Taking away satellite’s ability to provide ubiquitous coverage destroys the very utility of satellites–the ability to serve anyone at any place.

      The terrestrial services run at satellite spectrum is particularly troubling given the amount of spectrum to which they already have access. Rural areas have exactly the same amount of fixed wireless spectrum available to them as urban areas, but far less demand. The vast majority of the United States is underserved by fixed wireless not because of lack of spectrum, but because fixed wireless is an economically poor solution to serving rural populations. The fact that recent LMDS and 38 GHz auction licenses went without bidders, or for the minimum bid in many areas, is indicative of this spectrum oversupply. Between WCS, 18 GHz, 24 GHz, LMDS and 39 GHz–all shared bands where satellites take a secondary status–every part of the United States is already covered by more than 3.5 GHz of fixed wireless spectrum.

      Looking forward, the FCC wants to ensure more spectrum sharing and swapping by creating so-called “secondary markets” for spectrum. Such markets already exist to a large extent within certain types of wireless services. Satellites, for instance, already have developed secondary markets where resellers hawk transponder capacity for occasional use. The potential problems come when the regulators seek to promote the cross use of spectrum among differing services. That could spell trouble if and when spectrum coordinated for satellites gets sold to a terrestrial fixed service. The fixed service could effectively interfere with other satellite earth stations–like fly-aways or broadcasters–seeking access to that spectrum for occasional use. You can expect to see more from the FCC policy wonks on this issue in 2001.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for sharing – be it toys or spectrum. The real issues we face in the coming year are convincing those spectrum-strapped regulators that they need to consider how satellites enable other communications industries, provide high-quality competitive services and serve the public interest.

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