Op-Ed | Intelsat’s myopia on C-band

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The recent proposal made by Intelsat and Intel in response to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) request for proposals on how the satellite industry and the mobile networks can coexist took many of us by surprise.

Intelsat until recently has been a fervent champion of the protection of C-band for priority use by satellite operations. For them to propose to vacate C-band antennas from major urban centers to remote areas in exchange to be financially compensated by mobile operators may seem to be astute from some perspectives in the short term but it may also bring down its own and the rest of the satellite operator business interests around the globe.

During the last World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) , satellite operators and the majority of countries successfully held back forces behind mobile operators to preserve C-band and 28 GHz from being assigned to mobile services. Certainly the FCC was one of the most vocal opponents to the conclusion of the WRC 2015 and it continues to be very critical of the satellite industry in disagreeing with its proposal to reassign C-band and 28 GHz to mobility applications.

Its chairman recently even threatened to abandon the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) altogether to make its own direction if its decisions are not followed at the ITU. The opponents of this position, including Intelsat till recently, made it very clear that C-band is the lifeline frequency of choice for many countries and operators for mission critical applications such as communications and television broadcasting services.

A significant portion of the $16 billion annual Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) revenues come from C-band services. Despite its usage decline in the U.S. and Europe, C-band contracts represent a significant portion of the backlog for many satellite operators including Intelsat. This is why I find Intelsat’s motives even more puzzling because of the global ramifications which could follow if the FCC would move forward with this proposal. It risks not only its own survival but also the financial stability of our entire FSS industry.

We should begin with the larger question: does Intelsat or any other GEO C-band operator own any part of C-band frequencies used in their respective GEO orbits for terrestrial use?

ITU radio regulations state that satellite frequencies belong to administrations or countries where the filings are made so as long those rules are followed. These rules are made and agreed by all the members of the ITU and from time to time are newly created or amended as the members see fit during the World Radiocommunication Conferences, with the next one to be held, WRC 2019. The ITU radio regulations currently state that the standard C-band today has a priority for Space-to-Earth and Earth-to-Space in the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz and 5.9 to 6.4 GHz respectively. These regulations allow point-to-point microwave use of C-band terrestrially so as long as they protect satellite operations. This is a position agreed by all the countries to follow. The right of use of these satellite C-band frequencies belong to the countries and administrations, not the satellite operators themselves.

In the case of Intelsat, I believe most of their GEO orbit frequencies belong to the FCC and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, ITSO. I don’t know if ITSO itself had agreed with this proposal, but if Intelsat did this without consulting with ITSO, they may have offered to trade something which they don’t own.

Beyond the ownership of the spectrum issue, there is a bigger implication to this proposed step which may severely backfire on Intelsat and the rest of the FSS industry. No administration till today, outside the ITU process, has unilaterally decided to change the ITU regulations and assign terrestrial mobile services to be priority in C-band.

If the FCC follows through with this recommendation unilaterally, it could set a dangerous precedent. As I have described in an earlier publication, the United States and the FCC happens to be one of the five countries that occupy 90 percent of global C- and Ku-band orbital slots. Its satellite operators who operate under its filings, including Intelsat, enjoy the benefits derived from years of frequency priority all over the world, including countries that depend upon satellite operating in C-band, including those in South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

If the FCC sets the precedent that any one country can unilaterally declare national sovereignty (meaning make its own rules) over satellite C-band, why couldn’t every other nation follow suit? If every nation from Mexico to Mauritius to Malaysia can declare standard C-band is up for grabs for terrestrial use, what would happen to Intelsat’s business let alone the business of SES, Eutelsat, Telesat and every other satellite operator global and regional?

If many other nations decided to follow ‘nationalising’ C-band spectrum and turned it over to their own mobile operators, Intelsat could quickly find that they could no longer carry C-band services for its customers for many parts of the world. As such they could lose billions of dollars of backlog and they will find it much more challenging to service their debts.

Moreover, what entity would be 100 percent motivated to make sure this happens exactly in every country? It would be the company that is trying to set the next generation 5G mobile standard, Intel of course. The very entity that Intelsat is supposedly teaming up with in the U.S. would use this as precedence to go to each and every country to “nationalize” C-band to the very detriment of Intelsat and, sadly, the rest of the FSS industry. Intelsat may try to argue they would need to be compensated by any other foreign government to give up “their” C-band, but their shouts and cries could seriously fall to deaf ears because there is no guarantee that mobile operators in the U.S. or any other country in the world would agree to compensate satellite operators to use the satellite C-band frequencies.

An avalanche starts with a snow flake, and if Intelsat’s proposal starts the toppling of the dominos, no one will know how this will end for themselves and the rest of the satellite industry because we cannot fathom where it would end: it may not just end with C-band but continue onto Ku- and Ka-band as well.

When I grew up I played a lot of chess — of course I was not an expert but I learned very early that every move has a consequence and one must plan not the very next move but the multiple moves in advance if you are to have a chance at success.

Intelsat has by making this proposal now created the possibility that our C-band antennas can somehow be migrated away from our cable TV customers for the benefit of the mobile industry. In their myopic search for short-term cash, they may have set in motion actions and consequences which undermines one of the pillars of their assets, their global satellite C-band priority (as well as everyone else’s) in 40-plus orbital slots around the world.

By teaming up with Intel, one of our industry’s biggest nemeses, Intelsat may have opened the cage and let in a tiger to our midst who will take this opportunity to undermine satellite C-band on a global scale. Let’s hope that all the sheep in the cage survive this mistake, including the one that let the tiger in.

The rest of the FSS industry must continue to do everything in their power to protect the priority use of satellite allocated C-band for not only our own interests but the interests of our customers who are depending on us for their future operations.

Finally with all due respect, we should ask all regulatory bodies to preserve the legitimacy of the ITU process and as such if there are to be any changes in the current regulations we should discourage any unilateral changes on a national basis and agree to do them collectively in the next WRC 2019.

Tom Choi is the co-founder and chief executive of satellite telecommunications operator ABS.