WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission’s most vocal official on C-band spectrum rebuffed critics of a satellite industry proposal to repurpose some of the spectrum for cellular 5G through a private auction. 

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly on Sept. 24 defended a private auction like what C-Band Alliance members Intelsat, SES and Telesat have proposed as far more efficient than one run by the FCC.

“Most of the criticism of what is known as the CBA proposal shows a lack of understanding of how the internal commission works,” O’Rielly said at the 8th Annual Americas Spectrum Management Conference at the National Press Club here. “Please don’t anyone try to lecture me on the commission’s supposed efficiency and timeliness in conducting auctions.”

O’Rielly didn’t fully side with the C-Band Alliance’s spectrum reallocation plan, however. He said the U.S. needs at least 300 megahertz for cellular 5G services, while the C-Band Alliance has offered 200 megahertz — 180 usable megahertz plus a 20 megahertz guard band. 

O’Rielly and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated intentions to release the commission’s decision this fall on how to open up satellite C-band spectrum for 5G cellular services. O’Rielly emphasized a swift resolution as a higher priority for the FCC than deliberating over how big of a windfall satellite operators may gain from selling the spectrum. 

Satellite operators stand to gain billions of dollars from selling C-band — a windfall that critics have argued shouldn’t go to foreign companies (Intelsat and SES are incorporated in Luxembourg, while Telesat is Canadian). O’Rielly dismissed this as a holdup. 

“If someone or some entities make a profit for being in the right place at the right time, I will live with that outcome,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, if it is a contest between speed and government trying to extract a significant piece of the transaction through a lengthy process, I’ll take the speedy resolution.”

Advocates for a public auction say such a process could free up spectrum in 36 months, just as fast as the C-Band Alliance claims a private sell-off would take. O’Rielly also dismissed this, saying the FCC has several other projects it is working on, and that conducting a public auction is a tedious process. 

“We are talking years, and I mean years, before completion,”’ he said. “We can certainly ensure transparency, accountability, fairness and openness without having to run the auction ourselves.”

O’Rielly praised the C-band Alliance for coming forward with a plan, but he also advocated for repurposing more spectrum than those satellite operators want to relinquish. 

In his speech, O’Rielly said the C-Band Alliance was willing to sell 300 megahertz out of the 500 megahertz they have for downlinking broadcast content and other services. Asked by SpaceNews if the C-Band Alliance had agreed to that amount, O’Rielly clarified that 300 megahertz is his preference, but is not a done deal. 

“I’ve said multiple times I think it’s a necessity … and I think that’s what we’re moving towards,” he said. 

Peter Pitsch, the C-Band Alliance’s head of advocacy and government affairs, said on a later panel discussion at the conference that the group is “aggressively looking at clearing more than 200 megahertz,” but hasn’t reached that point. 

Pitsch said that effort focuses on using better signal compression technology so satellite operators can beam the same amount of content with less spectrum. C-Band Alliance members broadcast to almost 120 million homes, according to the group, meaning many customers would need to upgrade broadcast equipment to continue services if the alliance cedes more spectrum. 

“We have been working with our customers to make sure that they are comfortable with that, and we are only going to proceed on that basis,” Pitsch said. 

O’Rielly said C-band has long been a top candidate for 5G because it is a mid-band spectrum, blending the signal reach of lower bands with the capacity of higher bands. Nations such as South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, and others have also allocated mid-band spectrum for 5G. As a result, consumers will benefit from the scale of products made to use the same airwaves, he said. 

Fights may occur over the FCC’s spectrum reallocation decision, but O’Rielly said it will likely be limited to “squabbling over specifics.” 

“Generally, everyone agrees now that this spectrum must be reallocated,” he said. 

In February, however, Google and Charter warned that lawsuits are all but inevitable should the FCC accept the C-Band Alliance plan — not from Google and Charter specifically, but from the telecom industry in general. 

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...