C-Band Alliance members promise to buy American for new satellites under C-band plan

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WASHINGTON — Members of the C-Band Alliance have stipulated that they will only buy U.S.-built satellites to replace any capacity lost through the transfer of some C-band spectrum to cellular operators for 5G, a move that could position their plan more favorably with the White House and Congress.

In a filing dated Dec. 7, the C-Band Alliance, comprised of Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat, said that in order to ensure their C-band customers (most of them broadcasters) can maintain nearly  100 percent uptime, that “members of the C-Band Alliance will invest in new satellites (all of which will be American-made) to add capacity in the upper portion of the C-band Downlink.”

The FCC closed its comment window Dec. 11 on its notice of proposed rulemaking that explores how to open satellite C-band spectrum to more uses. At least 300 documents, including replies between companies and organizations, have been filed since the comment period opened in April.

SES spokesperson Markus Payer said by email Dec. 12 that it is “not the [C-Band Alliance] buying satellites but SES and Intelsat as the two largest CBA members.” He said the companies have estimated a range for how many satellites they would need, but have not revealed it publicly.

Eutelsat and Telesat, the two smaller C-Band Alliance members,  would lease or otherwise acquire spectrum on the new satellites from Intelsat and SES, according to an October filing from Eutelsat.

The C-Band Alliance has proposed a transfer of 40 percent of satellite C-band spectrum over the United States to cellular operators for 5G networks. The C-Band Alliance is seeking to convince the FCC to choose its plan, where satellite operators give up 200 megahertz of C-Band under the condition that cellular companies cover the cost of new infrastructure and migrating current users of that spectrum to other frequencies.

To accomplish that plan, satellite operators using C-band spectrum will need new satellites that make use of 300 megahertz of spectrum instead of the 500 megahertz used today, according to the C-Band Alliance.

The C-Band Alliance’s plan has gained positive feedback from the FCC, but regulators have not made a decision on it or other methods, such as a spectrum auction.

Recon Analytics Founder Roger Entner said promoting the purchase of American-made satellites is likely meant to send a signal beyond just the FCC.

“The audience here is in the White House and to a lesser degree, in the FCC,” he said in an interview.

Entner said satellite operators needing to buy more satellites to fulfill the plan wasn’t a surprise. Cellular operators are also unlikely to care whether satellite operators purchase their spacecraft at home or abroad, he said.

Entner said the C-Band Alliance’s move “certainly fits with the rhetoric of ‘America first’” embraced by the Trump administration.

But whether the ‘Buy American’ pledge improves the C-Band Alliance’s chances of persuading the FCC to adopt its C-band proposal remains to be seen.

“I don’t think that the proposal stands or falls on buying European or buying American satellites,” he said.

Three of the world’s six top manufacturers of communications satellites — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems — are based in the United States. Maxar Technologies of Canada is transitioning to become a U.S. company by Jan. 1 but is in the process of selling or shutting down its struggling communications satellite assembly line. The other two, Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space, are in Europe.

U.S. manufacturers could gain significant business as a result of the proposal. The American Cable Association, citing Northwestern University Professor William Rogerson, calculated that 15 to 16 new satellites would be needed to cover the loss of 200 megahertz of C-band spectrum.

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, which is currently building Intelsat’s Galaxy-30 broadcast satellite for North America, endorsed the C-Band Alliance’s plan.

“To meet its 18-to-36-month clearing timeline, the C-Band Alliance specifies that ‘new satellites must be built and launched in time to complete all of the necessary transitions’,” Northrop Grumman wrote in a letter dated Dec. 9. “Northrop is also encouraged that the C-Band Alliance also indicated that all potential satellite manufacturers will be U.S.-based, which will boost American productivity and job growth.  

“For these reasons, Northrop urges the Commission to adopt the C-Band Alliance market-based approach without delay.”

Maxar similarly endorsed the plan, saying that it will “provide an immediate boost to domestic satellite manufacturing.”

“For these reasons, Maxar supports the C-Band Alliance market-based approach,” Maxar wrote Dec. 11.

Boeing, writing Dec. 11, said it “supports the proposal of the C-band Alliance,” saying the proposal is not only important for satellite communications customers, but that it is the only one that protects aeronautical safety services located in the adjacent band between 4,200 and 4,400 megahertz.

Lockheed Martin stopped short of endorsing the C-Band Alliance proposal, but said it “recognizes the value in a market-based approach to the development and use of radiofrequency spectrum.”