BREMEN, Germany — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai informed Congress Nov. 18 that the agency will run a public auction of C-band spectrum instead of allowing a consortium of satellite operators to sell it directly to 5G wireless operators. 

Satellite operators Intelsat, SES and Telesat, acting as the C-Band Alliance, have been lobbying the Federal Communications Commission for more than a year to approve a private auction of C-band spectrum expected to fetch upwards of $60 billion in proceeds. 

The C-Band Alliance’s proposal received a positive reception at the FCC, where Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly had voiced support for a market-based approach to clearing the spectrum.

But in the past two months, several House members and Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the FCC, pressed the FCC to run the auction instead. 

In an effort to appease lawmakers opposed to a private auction, the C-band Alliance said its members would contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. treasury and help create a program for rural 5G networks if the FCC allowed its plan to proceed.

The C-Band Alliance’s efforts to placate congressional critics of a private C-Band auction appear to have fallen short. 

In a Nov. 18 letter sent to more than a dozen members of Congress, Pai said that the FCC will publicly auction 280 megahertz of C-band that satellite operators use mainly for television and radio programming so that it can be repurposed for cellular 5G networks. 

“After much deliberation and a thorough review of the extensive record, I have concluded that the best way to advance these principles is through an auction of 280 megahertz of the C-band conducted by the Federal Communications Commission’s excellent staff,” Pai wrote. “With a quarter century track record of transparent and successful auctions, I am confident that they will conduct a public auction that will afford all parties a fair opportunity to compete for this 5G spectrum, while preserving the availability of the upper 200 megahertz of this band for the continued delivery of programming.

The C-Band Alliance released a statement Nov. 18 criticizing the FCC’s decision, calling it a “significant departure from the [C-Band Alliance’s] market-based proposal.”

“The announcement does not address the critical involvement of the incumbent satellite operators in executing the complex task of reconfiguring and transitioning their networks,” the C-Band Alliance said. “Nor does the announcement address the fundamental modification of the rights afforded by the existing FCC licenses held by the CBA members which would be required under a public auction approach.”

The C-Band Alliance did not outline what recourse it intends to pursue in light of the FCC’s decision, but said “the full cooperation of the satellite operators will be required” to facilitate a spectrum transition.

The C-Band Alliance also indicated that it doesn’t see the FCC’s decision as necessarily final, saying it would “continue to work cooperatively with the FCC to develop an effective alternative plan and achieve the best outcome for the American public while protecting the interests of our users and the rights of our companies.”

Eutelsat, a former member of the C-Band Alliance that broke ranks with the group earlier this year, issued its own statement Nov. 18 saying the company “welcomes the decision” by the FCC to conduct a public auction. 

“Eutelsat looks forward to engaging with the FCC in a fruitful and positive dialogue aimed at shaping an equitable and efficient process to facilitate the expedition of the auction and subsequent clearing of the frequencies, so that 5G can be rolled out in a timely manner throughout the [continental United States].”

News of a public auction also found favor with ACA Connects, an organization of more than 700 small and medium-sized telecommunications providers that recommended the FCC publicly auction the spectrum and use some of the proceeds to replace satellite links with fiber. ACA Connects announced its rival plan with partners Charter Communications and the Competitive Carriers Association in July.

“We look forward to working with the FCC Chairman and his fellow commissioners on the details of an auction and on a transition plan that allocates necessary funds to accommodate incumbent users and gives cable earth station operators, including in rural America, the flexibility to transition to fiber-based solutions,” ACA Connects said. 

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...