Satellite Operators Appear Likely To Lose Exclusive Use of Popular Spectrum

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PARIS — The global satellite industry appears to have lost its exclusive use of part of the C-band radio spectrum that remains popular in equatorial regions but retained rights to the balance of spectrum coveted by terrestrial broadband networks.

While no final decisions will be made until a Nov. 2-27 meeting of global governments at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in Geneva, it now appears many nations want to permit terrestrial broadband into the lowest part of the spectrum being contested.

Given the publicized ambition of the GSM Association and other groups backing terrestrial wireless, the current state of affairs represents a modest victory at best. Having sought entry into the spectrum between 3.4 and 4.2 gigahertz, it appears that it will be limited to a 200-megahertz slice at 3.4 to 3.6 gigahertz.

Intelsat_frequency_9.7.15For the satellite industry the story is similarly mixed. Some industry officials even now are standing firm, saying the weeks remaining before WRC will be used to chip away at those backing terrestrial networks in the lower part of the band while holding on to gains between 3.6 and 4.2 gigahertz.

In a statement issued Sept. 4 in response to SpaceNews queries, satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg said:

“The lower C-band has been assigned to satellite for decades. Many operators are transmitting in these bands to customers who depend on that service. Losing that critical spectrum resource of course has an impact, which is why we defend it. Our strategy at WRC consequently has not changed: we defend the entire band.”

Several satellite industry officials said privately that it would be poor tactics to announce the acceptance of a compromise before the real negotiations begin at WRC.

But some were willing to admit that if the upper part of C-band is retained for exclusive satellite use at WRC and is kept that way for many years, the satellite industry will not unduly suffer.

“What we can say at this point – and there are still more than two months before WRC ends – is that the satellite industry has been able to contain the problem,” said Jean-Francois Bureau, director of institutional and international affairs at Paris-based Eutelsat, said Sept. 4. “Earlier this year, the terrestrial mobile groups were hoping to make the European position a model for the rest of the world. That has not occurred. We have been successful in protecting most of C-band.”

Like the United States, Canada and several other highly developed regions, the European delegation wanted to open a wider section of C-band for terrestrial mobile, as it already has done within European borders. But in recent weeks the European delegation has acknowledged that a position that works for Europe cannot necessarily be applied elsewhere, where satellite C-band provides vital public services.

Gonzalo de Dios, associate general counsel at Intelsat, which has the world’s biggest fleet of satellites that includes many in C-band, said the game is not over even in the lower part of C-band.

“The Russian delegation is staunchly opposed to making allocations in C-band” for terrestrial mobile networks, de Dios said Sept. 3. “The Asian region too – a big area – is against allowing IMT [international mobile telecommunications, an ITU phrase referring to terrestrial broadband] into the band.

“If this were a slam-dunk for the IMT community you would see green across the board, and this is not the case,” de Dios said, referring to a summary of regional positions produced during the Sept. 1-3 ITU Inter-Regional Workshop on WRC-15 Preparation, held in Geneva.

The satellite industry has been fighting against terrestrial entry into C-band for a decade and won a partial victory at the 2007 WRC conference. But at that meeting, 80 nations signed a footnote saying that, while no global authorization for terrestrial was approved, they would go ahead and allow it into C-band in their national territories.

These nations were advised to assure that their terrestrial broadband networks in C-band did not cause interference with satellite signals in neighboring nations.

David Hartshorn, secretary-general of the Global VSAT Forum, a satellite industry lobbying group, said some nations favoring a global regulatory authorization of terrestrial broadband into C-band spectrum may yet change their minds.

Hartshorn said respected bodies including the International Civil Aviation Organization have been active in seeking to keep terrestrial broadband out of C-band spectrum in the interests of airline safety.

The testimony of some nations that signed the 2007 footnote signaling their decision to allow terrestrial services in C-band may also change votes at WRC, Hartshorn said. Some licensed terrestrial networks on the assumption that the satellite services would be protected, and were not.

“Hard lessons have been learned by these nations,” Hartshorn said Sept. 4. “They have now had to backtrack from their original decision because of the interference caused not only in the spectrum they allocated to IMT, but in adjacent spectrum as well.”

How much damage would be caused to satellite C-band services if terrestrial broadband were allowed into the bottom 200 megahertz of the 3.4-4.2-gigahertz spectrum is unclear.

It would take years to deploy the terrestrial networks authorized, and much would depend on what kind of service they propose. Satellite industry officials in recent months have reminded cellular network operators that in many of their highest-growth markets, it is satellites that carry the cellular signal from rural areas to the telecommunications grid.

Terrestrial links alone would never be able to handle the increasing demand for throughput, they have said.