Satellite Sector Spoiling for a Spectrum Fight at WRC-15

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WASHINGTON — The Satellite 2015 conference and exhibition here March 16-19 featured repeated exhortations for the satellite sector to defend itself against any encroachment onto its reserved C-band spectrum from terrestrial broadband.

But there were exceptions. Some officials — including the notable presence of the GSMA, the industry association representing mobile terrestrial network operators, which was welcomed into the lion’s den — warned satellite operators that simply repeating their “No Change” position may no longer hold sway with the world’s governments.

Three of the world’s four largest commercial satellite fleet operators on March 17 said they expected to surrender zero spectrum to mobile broadband operators at this year’s conference of global radio spectrum regulators.

The chief executives of SES, Intelsat and Eutelsat each gave a flat “no” when asked whether spectrum now reserved for satellites in most places in the world would be subject to sharing under pressure from mobile broadband networks.

Daniel Goldberg Telesat
Daniel Goldberg. Credit: Telesat

Only Telesat Chief Executive Daniel S. Goldberg allowed as how it might be necessary to accept a limited sharing scheme.

The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC)-15, set for November in Geneva, is scheduled to take up a demand by terrestrial operators for access to the 3.4-4.2 gigahertz of C-band spectrum now reserved for satellite use.

Satellite operators say any concession would effectively push them out of the bands because the relatively weak satellite signals would be overwhelmed by the terrestrial broadcasts.

European governments and others have suggested that the lower part of C-band be made available for terrestrial broadband, leaving the upper half for satellite networks. The U.S. government appears to agree that terrestrial networks should be allowed to share a portion of that spectrum.

That is not what satellite fleet operators want to hear.

Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen, who as current president of the European Satellite Operators Association has been vocal in arguing against terrestrial sharing, said many governments in Africa, for example, have no idea how dependent are many of their essential services on C-band.

Recent studies suggest that de Rosen is right, but that it is not just the governments that do not know how many C-band antennas are in service in their territories — nobody else does either.

Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen
Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen. Credit: European Union

The satellite sector has long said tens of thousands of C-band receive-only antennas are in operation in Latin America, Africa and Asia, performing essential services without having registered with their national governments.

Not being registered, they are difficult to count. A satellite industry attempt to count its own customers ran head-on into resistance from satellite fleet operators and their customers in these regions, all saying this was commercially sensitive information.

The result: No one has a clear picture of how many C-band antennas are in service in these regions. That has left the satellite sector in the uneasy position of having to say to governments: “Trust us; you don’t know how dependent you are on C-band, and we don’t either, but you are dependent on it.”

In a statement that suggested the fistfight between terrestrial and satellite operators is likely to intensify in the run-up to WRC-15, de Rosen said GSMA has incorrectly portrayed Arab nations as backing more C-band spectrum for terrestrial networks.

It was not immediately clear what de Rosen was referring to. In recent weeks, the GSMA has announced several efforts to persuade Arab governments to support them at WRC-15. In February, GSMA said it joined with the South Asian, Middle Eastern and North African Council to urge Arab government support for more terrestrial spectrum for mobile broadband.

One Arab satellite operator said the satellite industry is doing itself no favors when one of its members tells African governments that the coming generation of high-throughput satellites, or HTS, will render C-band obsolete.

“How can we make our case about the necessity of C-band if one of our own members is saying HTS will allow us to end our use of C-band?” asked one regional satellite operator. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Kalpak Gude, a former Intelsat official who helped stave off the last attack from terrestrial networks at the WRC of 2007, said it will be a challenge to repeat that exploit at this year’s event, but that the upper part of C-band looks to be safe, for now.

Veena Rawat, senior spectrum adviser to the GSMA, presented the terrestrial operators’ case here March 18. She left room for a compromise on the amount of C-band that could be open to sharing, but declined to outline a precise position in advance of the WRC. “We’ll talk about that in November,” Rawat said.

Beyond dispute is that the WRC starting in November will be an ordeal.

“It’s going to be an absolute mess,” said Gonzalo de Dios, associate general counsel of Intelsat. “I don’t recommend that anyone attend. You work until 3 in the morning, get up at 4, and you’re going to discuss every comma and ‘i’ and at the end of the day I am not sure we’ll have a clear-cut definition of [terrestrial broadband] in C-band. I fear it’s going to prolong the pain. This is an issue that will stick with the industry for decades.”