FCC makes headway in legal battle with ABS, Hispasat and Arsat over C-band auction

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WASHINGTON — The court overseeing an effort by three satellite operators to prevent the FCC’s December C-band auction ruled against a motion that would have halted the auction, a decision that allows the auction schedule to hold but does not end the legal dispute. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on June 23 denied a motion by ABS, Hispasat and Arsat, collectively known as the Small Satellite Operators, to stay the FCC’s C-band auction, saying they had “not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal.” 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai celebrated the decision, saying in a statement that the ruling was “great news for American consumers and U.S. leadership in 5G.” 

“I am very pleased that the D.C. Circuit rejected this attempt by small satellite operators with no U.S. operations in the C-band to delay our efforts to repurpose critical mid-band spectrum,” Pai said. “The FCC will continue to defend our order on the merits, and I look forward to our C-band auction beginning on December 8.”

The Small Satellite Operators, called such because of the size of their fleets, not the weight of their spacecraft, still have a chance to thwart the FCC’s auction, Phil Spector, a consultant for the operators, told SpaceNews

“This is not at all the end of the road,” Spector said. 

ABS of Bermuda, Spanish operator Hispasat and Argentine operator Arsat still have an appeal before the court, he said.

“We intend to ask the court of appeals to set an expedited briefing schedule so we could keep things moving quickly and maybe have some chance of a ruling later this year,” potentially before the Dec. 8 auction, he said. 

The Small Satellite Operators each have one satellite with partial coverage of the continental United States in C-band, but were deemed ineligible by the FCC for a share of the billions of dollars in replacement satellite subsidies and incentive payments the commission plans to make available after it auctions 60% of the spectrum to cellular 5G network operators. 

The FCC said only Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat, Telesat and Claro (formerly Embratel Star One), proved they have C-band customers in the United States. That makes them worthy of an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion in subsidized replacement C-band infrastructure, including new satellites, and eligible for up to $9.7 billion in incentives if they can clear customers out of the spectrum by early December 2023. 

The Small Satellite Operators say the auction will cause them significant harm while enriching their competitors, most of whom have considerably larger satellite fleets. Pai said June 16 that he doesn’t expect the lawsuit will stop the FCC’s C-band auction.