David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum. Credit: Space Foundation photo

WASHINGTON — As the satellite communications industry prepares to defend key spectrum bands next year, some observers believe that regardless of the outcome of that effort, the industry is facing long-term spectrum battles against terrestrial wireless companies it may ultimately lose.

“It is a spectrum war that is growing,” said Bruce Olcott, a partner at the law firm Jones Day who specializes in satellite telecommunications law, at the third annual Space and Satellite Regulatory Colloquium here Oct. 23. “It’s a war that may never end, at least certainly in our professional lifetimes.”

The industry’s near-term focus is on the upcoming World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), which will take place next November in Geneva. One item on the agenda for that meeting will be a proposal to reallocate some C-band spectrum currently reserved for satellite applications to terrestrial wireless broadband providers.

Both the satellite communications industry and many of its users oppose any reassignment of satellite C-band spectrum. David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum industry group, said a number of C-band customers, including broadcasters, disaster response groups and aviation security organizations, have spoken out against any spectrum reallocation. “We have boots on the ground, beyond just ourselves, in this fight,” he said. “We do have significant support.”

Hartshorn said his organization has been marshaling support from customers as well as building up evidence that terrestrial providers are overstating their future spectrum requirements. That is the same approach, he said, the satellite industry used at the 2007 WRC to block a similar proposal to reassign C-band spectrum globally to terrestrial wireless services.

Industry officials cautioned, though, that technical arguments made by the industry go only so far. “In terms of readiness, we have done a tremendous amount of technical analysis and a tremendous amount of outreach,” said Gonzalo de Dios, associate general counsel for Intelsat. “At the end of day, despite all the technical work, the WRC becomes a political discussion.”

The C-band spectrum is not the only area of concern for the industry. Olcott said he is seeing terrestrial threats to several spectrum bands, including a proposal under consideration by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to allow air-to-ground mobile broadband services at Ku-band frequencies currently allocated for satellite services.

“It is supposed to be secondary,” he said of the proposed terrestrial Ku-band use, “but it is the camel’s nose under the tent in that band, and that could cause a chipping away over time.”

Satellite communications companies are not entirely on the defensive. Kim Baum, vice president of spectrum management and development at satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, said they were supporting another WRC agenda item that would provide additional Ku-band uplink spectrum for satellite systems. “That’s an item that’s exciting for the satellite industry since it’s laying the groundwork for future growth,” she said.

Colloquium attendees worried, though, that the satellite industry was not as well organized and funded as terrestrial wireless companies in the battle for spectrum, and did not have a compelling story for retaining its existing spectrum.

“We need to increase our advocacy efforts,” acknowledged Chris Stott, chairman and chief executive of ManSat and president of the industry group Society of Satellite Professionals International. “We don’t speak with one voice, and we need to.”

Some are skeptical that any advocacy efforts will be successful in the long run given the resources available to the terrestrial wireless industry. David Howgill, president of technology consultancy Huckworthy, said the satellite industry needs to be prepared to work with wireless providers on ways to share spectrum or risk losing it entirely and without compensation.

“The wireless industry will want more and more of our spectrum as time goes on. History shows that we can fight it all we like, but they’re going to win,” he said. “They’ve never lost to anybody in the long term. They’re a lot bigger than us.”

Twitter: @jeff_foust

Email: jfoust@spacenews.com


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Jeff Foust has more than a decade of experience writing about space policy, entrepreneurial ventures and regulatory affairs. In 2001, he established spacetoday.net to aggregate and summarize the day's space-related news stories. In 2003, he started The...