FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly at Hudson Institute in 2014 (Wikicommons).

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is still sifting through industry ideas for opening  satellite-dominated C-band spectrum to terrestrial telecommunications, and while not yet reaching a conclusion, considers Intel and Intelsat’s proposed spectrum clearing plan a positive step.

The agency has evaluated comments industry submitted over the summer, and is now “trying to figure out what the best mechanism is for moving forward,” FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly said Oct. 13 at the Americas Spectrum Management Conference here.

“I’m trying to figure out what’s the best mechanism to provide mobile service in this band, whether it be protection of incumbent uses in earth stations, or whether it be market mechanisms, and when I see Intel coordinate and combine with Intelsat, a large satellite provider, or at least today, I think that that’s very beneficial and provides one mechanism to look at closely,” O’Rielly said.

Intelsat and Intel filed an 11th hour proposal urging the FCC to leave it to satellite operators to clear parts of the C-band spectrum for future 5G networks on a case-by-case basis with terrestrial operators. Satellite operators would migrate C-band users out of the band or to a different part of the band in exchange for financial compensation from 5G C-band users for transition costs and lost opportunities.

The FCC asked industry, through am August notice of intent, for ideas on how to optimize the use of mid-band spectrum, which starts from 3.7 GHz in the C-band and stretches to 24 GHz. C-band, used extensively in the United States and globally for satellite television broadcasts, ranges from 3.4 to 4.2 GHz, though the FCC already gave 3.4 to 3.7 GHz to other purposes.

O’Rielly said of the proposals received, most support sharing C-band with incumbent users, i.e. satellite operators. Some proposals note the FCC’s ability to forcefully reallocate incumbents and cover the costs by auctioning the spectrum, he said.

O’Rielly highlighted Intelsat and Intel’s proposal, along with one from Qualcomm to let mobile operators share C-band while it is cleared for auction, as notable ideas to expand use of the spectrum.

“These are just some of the interesting ideas raised in the record, and in my opinion it’s too early to determine which are the most viable. The details must still be worked out as to how these various proposals would work and whether sharing is feasible. While the meat still has to be put on the bones, this is a good start,” he said.

O’Rielly said the U.S. is “at a disadvantage compared to other countries when it comes to licensed spectrum below 5G,” increasing the urgency for spectrum to become available. 5G requires substantially more capacity than 4G or previous standards, and the cry from mobile operators to wrench C-band from the hands of satellite operators has grown steadily louder with the proliferation of smartphones.

The satellite industry fended off mobile sector efforts to obtain most of C-band two years ago at the International Telecommunication Union’s quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva, mainly losing just 3.4 to 3.6 GHz as opposed to the entire band. O’Rielly said C-band is the “prime location” to address the U.S.’s dearth of mid-band spectrum, but that he doesn’t want to upend the business plan of satellite operators who have invested heavily there for decades.

“I respect and work very closely with my satellite friends in the industry for decades now, and so I am not interested in disrupting their overall operation,” he said.

How to reconcile those two goals is still unclear. O’Rielly said the FCC needs a better understanding of how many C-band earth stations are used in the U.S., since many are unregistered, making it difficult to measure the extent to which U.S. telecommunications relies on the spectrum.

“This is the only means the commission has to truly evaluate current use and protection mechanisms to the extent that they are necessary,” he said.

Intelsat and SES are the two  satellite operators with the highest number of C-band earth stations in the United States. SES said Oct. 3 that it is still analysing Intelsat and Intel’s proposal. Global operator Eutelsat, which has a smaller presence, said the proposal caught them off guard and they are in a similar state of analysis.

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...