C-Band Alliance plan would require 5G networks to pay for eight new satellites

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WASHINGTON — The two largest members of the C-Band Alliance would each need four new satellites in order to continue providing telecom services in the U.S. if the Federal Communications Commission accepts its C-band plan, the group said Dec. 19.

The C-Band Alliance, which until now refused to quantify the impact losing 200 megahertz of spectrum would have on its members’ fleets, said the additional satellites are necessary to ensure continuity of C-band television broadcasts and other services to more than 100 million homes.

In a Dec. 19 email to the FCC, Preston Padden, the C-Band Alliance’s head of advocacy and government relations, said Intelsat and SES would need the new satellites in order to recover capacity that would be rendered inoperable on current satellites.

“These new satellites will enable Intelsat and SES to operate approximately the same amount of capacity to carry video and other services that they have today in 500 MHz, but using only 300 MHz of spectrum,” Padden wrote in an email to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and 12 other agency officials. “These new satellites are part of the secret to clearing C‐band spectrum for 5G while fully protecting current C‐band customers.”

Intelsat and SES are the two largest members of the C-Band Alliance with around 50 geostationary satellites each. The two smaller members — Eutelsat, which has 37 such satellites, and Telesat, which has 17 — would use capacity on Intelsat and SES satellites to cover for their lost capacity.

Under the C-Band Alliance’s plan, funding for the eight new satellites would come from the proceeds its members receive by transferring 200 megahertz of C-band — 180 usable megahertz plus a 20 megahertz guard band — to cellular companies who want to use the spectrum for 5G networks. The C-band plan requires 5G network operators to cover the cost of new infrastructure and customer migration for affected satellite operators.  

The FCC is still deciding between the C-Band Alliance plan and other proposals, such as a spectrum auction. As a deal-sweetener for the C-Band Alliance plan, Intelsat and SES said they would exclusively source the satellites from American manufacturers. A prolonged slump in orders for such satellites has one longtime U.S. manufacturer, Space Systems Loral, looking to exit the geostationary satellite manufacturing business.

The need for new satellites has been a subject of debate among companies and organizations participating in the FCC’s discussion on C-band. Google suggested other frequencies such as Ku- and Ka-band could replace C-band, but the satellite industry disagrees. Characteristics of C-band, such as its wide reach and durable signal strength, make it irreplaceable, satellite operators argue.

Kalpak Gude, a former Intelsat official who once defended satellite C-band interests but is now president of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, wrote to the FCC saying that if satellite operators follow through with buying new satellites to cover lost spectrum, that “those satellites will be more costly and less efficient [than] the larger spacecraft that are currently in operation.”

The C-Band Alliance said the eight new satellites are needed in order to clear spectrum for 5G networks without leaving current C-band users in North America in a lurch.

“To be clear, every plan for clearing C‐band spectrum, other than the [C-Band Alliance] plan, necessarily would reduce the capacity for today’s C‐band users,” Padden wrote in his Dec. 19 letter to the FCC.

Intelsat is at the beginning of a refresh cycle for its North American broadcast fleet, having bought one satellite in January from Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems). Dianne VanBeber, Intelsat’s vice president of investor relations, told SpaceNews that any satellites obtained through the C-Band Alliance plan are “considered to be outside of what would have been our nominal fleet renewal.” As a result, Instelat is not factoring the additional C-band satellites into its capital expenditure plans, she said.

SES also said it is not budgeting for the new satellites the C-Band Alliance called for under the group’s spectrum clearing plan. SES spokesman Markus Payer declined to say how SES’s overall fleet plans would be affected by the new satellites.