Intelsat makes case for C-band plan as FCC deadline looms

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WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission closes its window Nov. 15 for comments on how to better allocate mid-band spectrum, Intelsat says its proposal to clear customers from portions of the satellite industry’s prized C-band in certain parts of the United States has been misconstrued by its detractors.

The response from operators of other satellite and cellular networks ranges from wait-and-see to outright hostility — a challenge Intelsat says is at least partly to blame on misunderstandings of the spectrum proposal.

The FCC’s comment window closes at 12:00 a.m. EST, having been extended two weeks at the behest of spectrum and telecom organizations. The original Aug. 3 notice of inquiry covers mid-band spectrum from 3.7 to 24 GHz, of which 3.7 to 4.2 GHz of C-band is currently allocated for satellite communications in the United States.

Intelsat and semiconductor giant Intel’s plan, submitted to the FCC Oct. 2, would have satellite operators voluntarily clear out of some C-band frequencies so that fifth-generation mobile networks, or 5G, can use the spectrum without causing interference. Those 5G networks would compensate satellite operators for the cost of relocating customers as well as for lost business opportunities.

Intelsat and Intel brand their plan as a market-based approach that would be faster than the FCC implementing sweeping, top-down decisions.

“We have had a lot of conversations with our customers along the way,” Michelle Bryan, Intelsat’s executive vice president, general counsel and chief administrative officer, told SpaceNews Nov. 10. “I would say so far there haven’t been many questions. What [customers] have indicated is that they appreciate that we are trying to get to certainty. It’s clear that that is important to them.”

Intelsat’s U.S.-based C-band customers, the overwhelming majority of which are television broadcasters, were generally not surprised by the proposal, she said, because they were already aware of the ever-increasing desire to make spectrum available for new services. FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly last month described the U.S. as being disadvantaged on the international stage regarding licensed spectrum for 5G. He also praised the Intelsat-Intel idea as one worth considering.

On the contrary, mobile network operator T-Mobile, which in May detailed plans to roll out 5G in the U.S., told the FCC Oct. 13 that it “should specifically reject any proposals to use experimental market-based mechanisms, such as those suggested by Intel and Intelsat,” arguing the proposal disproportionately benefits Intelsat, “will not produce an efficient means of promoting terrestrial use,” and that the spectrum should be auctioned off instead.

Bryan said that not all mobile carriers share T-Mobile’s opinion.

Gaining a teammate?

Intelsat and SES together control more than 90 percent of C-band in the U.S., making SES the most important partner Intelsat needs for its plan to succeed. Bryan said that while SES’s support is not a requirement to keep pushing the proposal, “in the end, it’s difficult to see how this will work if we don’t have SES in the consortium.”

In the time since Intelsat and Intel submitted their proposal, SES met with the FCC three times to discuss the commission’s notice of intent, according to FCC documents. Those meetings centered primarily on the importance of C-band for nationwide delivery of television content, not the Intelsat-Intel proposal. SES has yet to provide an update on its stance regarding the proposal since Oct. 3 when the operator told SpaceNews that, among other things, it was “open to ideas to use parts of the spectrum differently as long as this does not undermine our ability to use our substantial investments in C-band for the benefit of our customers and their millions of end users.”

Intelsat sought to assuage concerns that its proposal would negatively influence spectrum decisions around the world, arguing that the uniqueness of the U.S. spectrum situation makes the proposal country-specific. C-band encompasses 800 MHz from 3.4 to 4.2 GHz, but in the U.S. the FCC has already allocated frequencies from 3.4 to 3.7 GHz to non-satellite or mobile purposes. The vast majority of other countries already allocated 3.4 to 3.6 GHz for mobile users during the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference, Hazem Moakkit, Intelsat’s vice president of spectrum strategy, said.

Bryan described concerns raised by Tom Choi of Bermuda-based satellite operator ABS that the proposal violates Intelsat’s responsibilities to the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, ITSO, as a “red herring.”

ITSO obligates Intelsat to provide global connectivity on a nondiscriminatory basis — a holdover from Intelsat’s origin as an intergovernmental organization — and affirms that legacy orbital slots are for Intelsat, Bryan said. None of the orbital slots where Intelsat offers C-band services to the U.S. market are through ITSO, she said. Furthermore, Brian said most of the orbital slots involved come from Intelsat’s acquisition of Loral Space and Communications’ North America fleet in 2004 and from merging with PanAmSat in 2005.

“We are not saying we are walking away from the spectrum,” Moakkit said. “We are retaining the [fixed satellite services] primary allocation in the 500 MHz. What we are trying to do is find a way to accommodate the need for 5G deployment in mid-band spectrum.”