ABS, Hispasat and Star One cry foul over C-Band Alliance

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WASHINGTON — Three regional satellite operators with C-band coverage over the United States have complained to U.S. telecom regulators about being left out of a group led by four of the world’s largest satellite operators to arrange a proposed spectrum transfer to the wireless industry.

The three operators, Hispasat of Spain, ABS of Bermuda and Star One of Brazil, say they have tried to negotiate with Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat — the leading satellite operators involved in arranging for the likely transfer of some C-band frequencies to cellular companies for 5G — but were “stonewalled by the big four,” according to Phil Spector, a long-time telecom lawyer now working as a consultant for ABS. 

ABS-3A
Images shows some of ABS-3A’s C-band coverage. Credit: ABS

Spector and other ABS, Hispasat and Star One representatives met with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission this month amid concerns they and potentially other small fleet operators will not receive money from the proposed transfer of spectrum, an amount telecom analysts estimate could total billions of dollars. 

“They are going to allocate this money among themselves, and at least to date they are not going to share that money with these three smaller operators,” Spector said in an interview. “We think that’s wrong. If the FCC adopts this proposal for the C-band and allows these four operators to realize substantial sums of money from giving up part of the C-band, the same logic would apply to these three smaller companies.”

Despite the difference in scale, Spector said the three operators have invested “hundreds of millions of dollars” in satellites that cover all or part of the United States in the C-band. That investment included getting market access from the FCC, he said. 

In their presentation to the FCC, ABS, Hispasat and Star One admit they have not generated any revenue from C-band services in the U.S., but say they all intend to. ABS’s all-electric propulsion satellite ABS-3A has a projected end of life in 2042, for example, leaving more than two decades to line up customers. 

Amazonas-3 C-band coverage. Credit: Hispasat
Amazonas-3 C-band coverage. Credit: Hispasat

The plan put forward by Intelsat, Intel and SES, and later adopted by Eutelsat and Telesat, also includes provisions for “future foregone business opportunity costs.”

Luxembourg and U.S.-based Intelsat, Luxembourg-based SES, Paris-based Eutelsat and Telesat of Canada formed the C-band Alliance Oct. 1, creating an entity that will facilitate the transfer of spectrum and distribute proceeds from cellular companies that, under the satellite operators’ plan, are required to pay for replacement infrastructure and other costs associated with migrating satellite customers out of the band.

Members of the C-Band Alliance control more than 90 percent of U.S. satellite C-band, which spans from 3.7 to 4.2 gigahertz, but not all of it.

In their presentation to the FCC, ABS said one of its six satellites, ABS-3A, has U.S. C-band coverage. Amazonas-3, one of Hispasat’s 11 satellites, also covers the U.S. in C-band. Star One says three of its seven satellites are “capable of transmitting to and from US points in the C-band,” though only one, Star One C1, has a coverage map showing U.S. C-band coverage.  

Embratel Star One's C-band footprint on its Star One C1 satellite. Credit: Star One
Embratel Star One’s C-band footprint on its Star One C1 satellite. Credit: Star One

In contrast, Intelsat has 26 satellites with full or partial C-band coverage of the U.S., SES has 18, Eutelsat has five and Telesat has three, based on numbers from the first half of this year.

Spector said executives from ABS and Hispasat met with members of the C-band Alliance in September during World Satellite Business Week, an annual Paris gathering of C-suite satellite industry executives, but that the meetings were fruitless.

“That’s what then led to the decision to make this presentation to the FCC,” he said.

Dianne Vanbeber, Intelsat vice president of investor relations, confirmed the meetings took place between the C-band Alliance founding members and the three regional operators, but declined to comment further.

In an Oct. 19 statement, the C-Band Alliance said that “any operator that has C-band customer services in the continental U.S. that would be impacted by the proposed regulatory change is welcome to join the consortium.”

“The CBA aims to protect all users of C-band services in the United States, ensuring all transition expenses, such as filters, are installed correctly and at the CBA expense,” the group said.

Spector said the small fleet operators intend to voice their concerns again during the FCC’s comment window on the regulator’s C-band plan, which closes Oct. 29. 

“The value of their investment in the assets in space will be diminished,” if the plan is approved and satellite operators lose spectrum, he said, “so compensation is appropriate.”