Intelsat, with Intel, proposes way for 5G to use satellite’s C-band spectrum

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Updated Oct. 6 with comments from Eutelsat. 

WASHINGTON — Global satellite operator Intelsat has teamed up with tech giant Intel to urge the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to let terrestrial communications companies make use of satellite-controlled C-band spectrum for future 5G networks on satellite-industry terms.

The proposal, submitted by both companies to the FCC on Oct. 2, would allow incumbent satellite operators to collaborate with terrestrial networks on ways to clear swaths of C-band from 3,700 to 4,200 MHz based on 5G needs and the presence of existing fixed satellite service (FSS) systems. Satellite operators would retain ownership of the spectrum, and auction the right for joint use of frequencies with terrestrial companies in cleared areas.

“Intelsat and Intel urge the Commission to allow co-primary terrestrial mobile operations in the 3700-4200 MHz band through commercial agreements between terrestrial mobile interests and primarily affected FSS satellite operators,” Intelsat and Intel wrote Sept. 2. “Those FSS satellite operators, in turn, will work cooperatively to identify geographic areas of the country where they could undertake the complicated and costly process of clearing portions of the C-band for terrestrial use in defined areas by, for example, moving their services and customers to a portion of the 3700-4200 MHz band, physically moving ground antennas outside of identified geographic areas, or other means, as appropriate.”

Mobile networks have consistently eyed C-band for their own connectivity services, having battled with the satellite industry to wrest it away by regulatory means. Projections for fifth-generation 5G networks, however, require 15 times more spectrum than 2G, 3G and 4G networks combined.

Satellite and terrestrial network operators generally disagree over the effectiveness of sharing spectrum, with terrestrial operators claiming it’s possible and satellite operators saying sharing causes unacceptable interference.

The resolution Intelsat and Intel propose would be specific to geographic regions based on the demand for services from the different infrastructures. In their statement, the companies recognize spectrum clearing would involve “significant cost, including lost opportunities” for incumbent satellite operators. Terrestrial companies using satellite spectrum would remunerate satellite operators for those financial burdens.

Dianne VanBeber, Intelsat’s vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, told SpaceNews Oct. 3 that urban centers would be the main areas for spectrum clearing.

“They [terrestrial 5G networks] really only need it over city centers where they need more density of spectrum to deal with all the population. We’ll agree to clear certain major metropolitan regions so that there is no opportunity for interference,” she said.

VanBeber said that while several operators have some C-band capacity over the continental United States, the satellite operators most impacted by this decision would be Intelsat and competitor SES.

SES told SpaceNews Oct. 3 that the operator is still deciding on the merits of Intelsat and Intel’s proposal.

“As a leading satellite operator we see it as our duty to monitor closely any initiative to change the current framework and the impact this would have on us and on the ecosystem,” said SES spokesperson Markus Payer. “We are therefore analyzing carefully proposals from the Intel/Intelsat consortium and others and need to understand the details, implications and consequences of these plans. Our overriding concern is to be able to continue to fulfill and protect our own and our customers’ current and future needs.”

Payer said SES and other satellite operators have invested billions of dollars into C-band satellite capacity, coupled with tens of millions for complementary ground equipment. Those networks provide television content to more than 50 million subscribers in the U.S., as well as rural broadband, maritime, military and emergency broadband communications, and real-time weather data for the National Weather Service. SES’s next satellite, SES-11/EchoStar-105, is scheduled to launch this month with fresh C-band capacity, along with Ku- and Ka-band.

“Given the size and importance of satellite C-band, we are determined to protect and defend the fully functional system,” he said. “We are carefully analyzing proposals to change this ecosystem and the submissions and pleadings to the FCC.

“We are 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.”

Paris-based Eutelsat, a global fleet operator with a smaller presence in the U.S. but with meaningful capacity over the Americas, is similarly evaluating Intelsat and Intel’s proposition.

“Intelsat’s announcement has taken everyone by surprise,” Eutelsat chief executive Rodolphe Belmer told SpaceNews Oct. 5. “There are potentially positive and negative consequences. We reserve judgement until we fully understand them.”

Intelsat and Intel said that broad, government-led spectrum allocations over the last four decades have averaged 13 years to complete, and risk years of regulatory quagmire.  The companies estimate their plan would enable terrestrial use of C-band within one to three years.

“The Intelsat and Intel proposal would free up mid-band spectrum for flexible use in markets nationwide, and it ensures that the free market—rather than the government—determines the highest and best use of the spectrum in each geographic area,” the companies said.