U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, center, ripped into the satellite industry for what he called self-defeating intransigence over sharing of Ka-band spectrum. Credit: FCC

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s bare-knuckled attack on satellite operators’ refusal to share Ka-band spectrum with future 5G terrestrial mobile providers ripped through the Satellite 2016 conference here like a cold mountain wind.

It was also a warning to the satellite industry that what it often describes as its victories over terrestrial rivals at a recent congress of global wireless frequency regulators left bruises that are unlikely to heal anytime soon.

In a March 7 address to the 19th Annual Satellite Leadership Dinner organized by the Satellite Industry Association, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, breaking with the protocols that usually accompany such gatherings, did not mince his words.

“I offer a bit of hard-earned experience: it is far more practical to get on the train than to be run over by it,” Wheeler said, adding that, for the FCC, the satellite industry’s comportment in the regulatory fight “was beyond disappointing.”

The FCC and the U.S. government had sought, during the month-long World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) that ended in November, to persuade global governments to approve studies in how terrestrial and satellite service providers could share pieces of spectrum where satellites now have rights.

In particular, the U.S. delegation asked that the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations organization that regulates wireless spectrum and satellite orbital slots, be mandated to study 5G mobile’s use of the 28-gigahertz portion of the spectrum.

Already assembled to battle against terrestrial networks to protect C-band spectrum, the satellite industry at the November conference fought the U.S. proposal and won.

What that will mean for future use of the 28-gigahertz spectrum is unclear. The topic may be reintroduced at the next WRC, scheduled for 2019.

Wheeler’s point was that whatever happens elsewhere, the United States is determined to force some kind of sharing arrangement in this spectrum band even if WRC delegations declined to endorse such use.

During the conference, the U.S. delegation had said a global agreement on the frequencies to be shared was the desired outcome as it would give “scope and scale” to manufacturers of future 5G network equipment.

Several satellite operators were asked to comment on Wheeler’s remarks. All agreed that the FCC chairman had thrown a red flag. One official said satellite fleets planning to use the current Ka-band spectrum may need to rethink their plans if the FCC’s opinions don’t change.

Another said that with a U.S. presidential election coming, Wheeler is unlikely to be in his post by the time of the next WRC conference of global regulators.

Mark D. Dankberg, chief executive of ViaSat Inc., whose U.S. consumer broadband business uses Ka-band exclusively, said it remains unclear what 5G applications will emerge and how their spectrum requirements would affect satellite systems if both operated in the same frequencies.

“We are going to have to take a close look at it,” Dankberg said March 10 during the conference. Dankberg denied that ViaSat had been a lukewarm supporter of the satellite industry position at WRC, but said that in the specific case of 5G, the future industrial and spectrum-use landscape remains unknown.

Here are excerpts from Wheeler’s remarks:

“I understand– and agree – that [the 28-gigahertz spectrum] is an important band for the satellite community, where you enjoy secondary usage status. But it was beyond disappointing to see the satellite industry work so hard to block the ITU from even studying 5G at 28 GHz at the recent WRC in Geneva.

“Such intransigence was frustrating. I do not believe it was in the satellite industry’s interest to stop the ITU from even exploring sharing at 28 GHz. This is especially true when the U.S. and other countries interested in being leaders in 5G are already committed to developing sharing in that band.

“It would have made more sense to have that study take place in a setting where the satellite industry is an experienced and active participant in the process. The clear plan for the United States and other countries is to roll up our sleeves to make sharing possible in these bands.

“My preference would be for the satellite industry to work with the mobile industry and quickly come back to us with realistic sharing ideas for the coexistence of satellite and mobile in these upper bands. And quickly means now.

“Industry-driven win-win solutions that protect your existing and contemplated satellite services, while also enabling new terrestrial offerings – are likely to find regulatory favor. Claims that sharing is impossible are not.

“Those claims are particularly unpersuasive today –when satellite companies are seeking to deploy their licensed spectrum for terrestrial use, and in the process, insisting that sharing is both technically feasible and decidedly in the public interest. To this non-engineer, this seems completely inconsistent with claims that sharing is impossible.

“I understand there already have been discussions between the satellite industry and some terrestrial mobile operators and manufacturers to come up with a solution that all parties can live with. And I’m encouraged to see some options presented in the Spectrum Frontiers record.

“But let me underscore that we plan to act on the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding this summer, so time is short. I strongly encourage SIA member companies to explore these sharing opportunities with the terrestrial industry – quickly and seriously.

“This will require the industries to work diligently to resolve the technical details necessary for sharing scarce spectrum across the spectrum chart, so that a variety of technologies can work together in deploying broadband and maximizing the benefits of high-speed connectivity.

“I am convinced that terrestrial and satellite systems can work effectively together to share these bands, and both can flourish – a conviction reinforced by the fact that our defense agencies have found ways to accommodate sharing with commercial interests.

“Not only is it important for the satellite industry to work with the terrestrial industry on sharing, it is important that the satellite industry also work together to resolve incompatible satellite applications that use the same spectrum resource. With the proposed NGSO systems, we will be faced with difficult decisions that would be much better served if the satellite industry leads with solutions amenable to all parties.

“As someone who has spent decades practicing before the Commission, and now finds himself on the other side of the table, I offer a bit of hard-earned experience: it is far more practical to get on the train than to be run over by it.

“The satellite industry deserves almost endless kudos for what it has accomplished to date. Now it has a critical role to play in bringing broadband services to the billions of unserved or underserved people, as well as the national priority next-generation services.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.