WRC-15 spectrum
Credit: SpaceNews/Lance H. Marburger

C-band Spectrum is Worth Fighting For

Satellite operators have long been aware of the challenge they face from terrestrial broadband providers for C-band spectrum at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-2015) this November in Geneva. The question is what they’re going to do about it.

The answer, at least as of this past June, was, not enough, according to one key official at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency that deals with spectrum issues and hosts the WRCs, which are held every few years. Yvon Henri, chief of the space services department at the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, said June 10 that the satellite industry has essentially rested on its laurels after fending off a similar attack at the 2007 WRC. This time, he warned, “the attack is much more serious.”

Indeed, the terrestrial wireless industry, driven in large part by the explosion in the use of smartphones and their bandwidth-intensive applications, is far more hungry and powerful than it was just eight years ago. Moreover, it seems that more governments, notably in Europe and the Middle East, are sympathetic to the wireless industry’s desire for more spectrum, in particular C-band frequencies traditionally reserved exclusively for satellite use. Early indications are that other regions might be siding with the terrestrial broadband providers.

Technical studies on the issue have conclusively determined that localized terrestrial services using the frequencies in question will overwhelm relatively weak satellite signals in the area, effectively rendering them useless. Many of these satellite signals support important public and social services in rural and economically deprived areas.

Satellite operators have for years been expanding into the Ku- and Ka-bands, but these frequencies are more susceptible than C-band services to weather-related disruption, an important consideration for large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America.

Part of the problem for satellite operators, who stand to incur substantial revenue losses if they are forced to give up C-band spectrum, is that it is all but impossible to quantify how widely their services are used. That’s partly due to the fact that ground network operators in most of the affected nations are not required to register their satellite antennas with government authorities.

At least two countries, Vietnam and Thailand, have taken the unusual step of writing testimonials to the ITU on the importance and prevalence of C-band satellite services in their countries, even if they cannot provide specific numbers. Mr. Henri urged satellite operators to lobby the governments of other countries that depend on C-band to do the same.

The result, he said, would be wider recognition of the importance of C-band satellite services. This won’t guarantee a victory for the satellite industry at WRC-2015 but certainly it cannot hurt the cause.

One European industry official lamented recently that satellite companies are not very good at mobilizing themselves to deliver a strong, unified message to regulatory authorities. Still, it was a bit surprising that, less than six months before the moment of decision at WRC-2015, satellite operators were being prodded by an apparently sympathetic ITU official — and by organizations such as the Global VSAT Forum — to stick up for themselves.

If companies like Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat — the world’s three largest satellite operators — have not already begun to rally furiously for their cause, including a push to enlist other countries in a letter-writing campaign to the ITU, they need to do so immediately. Time is running short, and if the WRC-2015 decision on C-band doesn’t go their way they’ll be left to count their losses and wonder if a more concerted effort on their part would have tipped the scales in their favor.