“We are going to need a bigger boat,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said July 12, quoting the 1975 movie Jaws as a metaphor for the challenge of handling 5G needs. “Or in our case, more spectrum.”

WASHINGTON — U.S. telecom regulators approved a plan announced last month to allow 5G signals in the same spectrum currently used for satellite television broadcasts.

The unanimous vote by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and the agency’s three commissioners lays the groundwork for the transition of some, or possibly all of the 500 megahertz of spectrum commonly known as C-band.

Exactly how much spectrum will be determined through the processes outlined in the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which detailed a four-step plan to make C-band accessible for 5G communications.

The order also requires users of C-band satellite dishes in the U.S. to license their dishes with the FCC (and update existing licenses), enforcing what was previously a voluntary process so that regulators can understand how heavily the band is used.

Intelsat and SES, the world’s two largest geostationary satellite operators, along with chip-maker Intel and, as of today Eutelsat, back a plan to free up 100 MHz of C-band as long as new users cover the cost of migrating customers and lost opportunities.

The NPRM gives multiple pathways for the expanded use of C-band, including market-based methods like the plan satellite operators put forward, spectrum auctions (favored by T-Mobile), and alternative methods. The FCC is seeking comment on the best way forward.

Like Jaws, but with less blood

The FCC kicked off discussions on how to make more spectrum available for 5G last year, fearing that the U.S. would fall behind other countries in preparing for the next generation of high-speed communications.

“If we make headway here, we can start to reclaim that lost leadership in spectrum that’s so critical for 5G networks,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the ruling.

Mobile network operators have long had eyes on C-band, which in the U.S. ranges from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, as a large swath of contiguous spectrum with favorable signal propagation characteristics.

Pai, speaking July 12 ahead of the vote, said the FCC wanted to “identify a mechanism that will unleash activity in this band like the $3,000 bounty placed on the shark in Jaws, but with … less bloodletting” referencing the popular 1975 film.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the satellite industry’s willingness to cooperate on ways to use C-band instead of resisting the change made for a rare opportunity to have a less painful transition.

“[It] just so happens that the current primary users, certain satellite providers, are receptive to reducing [their] footprint,” he said. “It’s rare you see the stars align to execute a large change in spectrum policy.”

O’Rielly said he was pleased to support the NPRM, but cautioned that the 100 MHz offered from satellite operators is unlikely to be sufficient.

“I’ve advocated for 200 to 300 Megahertz, with a serious review to release even more,” he said.

While ceding more spectrum would upset satellite operators, O’Rielly’s other remarks about the urgency of spectrum reallocations may give them relief.

The O’Rielly said the reallocation “needs to happen quickly,” not in five or 10 years. Intelsat, Intel and SES while championing their plan for the past several months have said a market-based approach could open up C-band in three years or less. Regulatory mandates would be more difficult and require considerably more time, they argued.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the satellite industry plan “could provide the quickest path to clearing spectrum, and do so without the issues that arise when the commission begins imposing mandates.”

Carr, citing financial analysts’ predictions that 2021 will be the year of peak investment in 5G infrastructure, encouraged taking a market-based approach, saying it “makes the most sense to move forward with options that have the best shot at bringing the spectrum online during the initial 5G rollout.”

Intelsat, in a statement provided to SpaceNews, said it is “pleased with the emphasis on the need for speed and the benefits of a market-based solution.”

“The satellite operators — Intelsat, SES and now joined by Eutelsat — will work to demonstrate our ability to efficiently implement our market-based proposal, protecting the C-band services environment from disruptive interference while clearing spectrum to accelerate the era of 5G in the U.S.,” Intelsat 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...