WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission officials urged patience with the repurposing process for satellite C-band spectrum, saying regulators are more concerned about getting it right than rushing the process.

Speaking to cable operators, many of which rely on C-band satellites to distribute television programming, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai avoided giving a timeframe for when the agency will decide on the spectrum.

“It’s important for us to make the right decision, not to make a right-now decision,” Pai said March 21 at the America’s Communications Association’s (formerly the American Cable Association) annual summit.

Fleet operator Intelsat, the founding member of the C-Band Alliance, said in February that it believed a decision was likely by the end of June, but cautioned that the FCC’s process did not ensure a predictable timeframe. Intelsat and competitors SES, Eutelsat and Telesat control virtually all the satellite C-band airwaves in the United States and have proposed selling a portion of the spectrum to accommodate future high-speed 5G wireless networks.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly commented March 20 that the agency was still figuring out timing.

“At this point, I don’t believe that there is much question as to whether there will be a reallocation of C-band spectrum,” he said at the summit. “The open issues pertain to the appropriate mechanism and time frame to make the process happen.”

Expediency has been one of the C-band Alliance’s top selling points in advocating its plan, which involves freeing 200 megahertz of C-band spectrum — 180 megahertz for use, plus a 20 megahertz guard band to avoid adjacent signal interference — in exchange for payments from new users of the spectrum. Satellite operators use 500 megahertz of C-band (located from 3,700 to 4,200 megahertz) for television broadcasting and other services in the United States.

The C-Band Alliance says it can free 200 megahertz of spectrum within 18 to 36 months of an order from the FCC to make way for 5G networks.

Some wireless network providers disagree with that assessment, arguing that lawsuits will tie up the process for far longer should the FCC choose the C-Band Alliance plan over another approach, namely an auction.

FCC to cable operators: we hear you

O’Rielly said the FCC is aware of cable operator concerns about how the C-Band Alliance will protect incumbent users of the spectrum. The C-Band Alliance says it will cover the cost of spectrum filters and other changes needed to ensure the same service with less spectrum, but that it disagrees with America’s Communications Association’s estimation of those costs.

“Those details will have to be fleshed out if or when the commission moves forward with that or a similar approach,” O’Rielly said. “The key is not having a knee-jerk reaction in opposition while the complex issues are being considered and resolved.”

Preston Padden, the former head of advocacy and government relations for the C-Band Alliance, said in February that America’s Communications Association demanded $200,000 per cable system from the C-Band Alliance.

“There’s a word for that: it’s shakedown,” he said.

While the America’s Communications Association denied making that request, O’Rielly cautioned the association’s members not to overplay their hand.

“If you don’t get greedy or seek unfair enrichment in the reallocation, your concerns will have to be fully addressed,” O’Rielly said.  

O’Rielly said repurposing C-band downlink frequencies between 3,700 and 4,200 megahertz will necessitate an expansion of Wi-Fi and unlicensed services in the uplink band, located between 5,925 and 7,125 megahertz. That process could allow cable operators, many of which now also provide broadband internet connections, to introduce new wireless services without having to go through an auction to get spectrum, he said.

Intelsat and SES told the FCC in a Feb. 15 letter that they support the agency’s push to allow new users in the uplink band, but efforts will be needed to ensure new users don’t generate harmful signal interference — a risk they said is high because of the large size of C-band beams and the distance signals must travel to reach satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth.

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...