Satellite Dish
Lots of C-band satellite dishes are unregistered, but of those that are registered with the FCC, up to a third don't exist or aren't used, according to Google. Credit: russellstreet /Flickr (Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON — Earth-observation data shows that one in three C-band satellite dishes registered with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission either don’t exist or aren’t in use, a spectrum official at Google said last week.

The number of unregistered C-band dishes dwarfs that of registered dishes, according to fleet operator Intelsat, but the paucity of hard data on how heavily C-band is truly used is a recognized irritation to the FCC and other telecom regulatory agencies.

Presenting information that could factor heavily into the commission’s decision-making on how to expand the use of C-band, Andrew Clegg, spectrum engineering lead at Google, said Oct. 13 that the company found numerous dishes were absent at database-listed coordinates, either having been removed or having never existed in the first place.

“We looked at all 4,700 registered earth stations using Google Earth imagery and found in 29 percent of the cases, the registered dishes aren’t even there,” Clegg said at the Americas Spectrum Management Conference here. “If we looked at historical imagery, we could see that in some cases those dishes used to be there and were taken out, with the registration never taken off the books. In some cases we saw that the dishes never existed at all, but they are still on the books.”

When factoring in the 29 percent missing “plus probably a greater percentage that aren’t operating anymore, roughly a third of the registrations are not active,” he said, based on Google research. “We think the database really needs to be cleaned up.”

Speaking on the same panel, Hazem Moakkit, Intelsat’s vice president of corporate and spectrum strategy, said recent discussions with a small broadcaster revealed that that customer had more than half as many unregistered C-band dishes for their customers alone than the FCC has in all of the agency’s records.

“Only one of our customers told us that they have 3,000 earth stations that are not registered,” he said. “They are one of the smaller broadcasters and they don’t deal with registration. We have to factor that into the equation.”

By that metric, Intelsat customers alone have multiple times what the FCC has documented in C-band dishes. Competitor SES also has a large C-band customer base in the United States, and other operators have a smaller but not inconsequential presence.

Moakkit said the onus remains on customers and not satellite operators to register terminals and keep that information fresh. Thousands of receive-only satellite dishes stay unregistered because the FCC allows it, he said. Nevertheless, that Intelsat-customer discussion meant to better gauge how many dishes are in use provided a vague proxy as to the decisively larger fraction of unregistered dishes.

Unreliable data on how many C-band terminals are active has been a sticking point with regulators in the U.S. and internationally as they try to gauge how heavily the satellite industry truly relies on spectrum. In an Oct. 13 speech at the conference, FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he wants the agency to ensure “updated and complete information about incumbent operations is in the FCC databases.”

“At a minimum, the commission needs a better understanding of the current number of C-band earth stations in existence. 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.

Satellite operators say their customers — particularly broadcasters with receive-only C-band dishes — often don’t register their dishes, and that enforcing registrations is beyond operators’ control. Without those numbers, the satellite industry has argued that its use of C-band is substantially greater than what’s accounted for by regulators, but hasn’t been able to back those claims with numbers.

Space-based imagery could, ironically, force satellite operators to address the dearth of information more seriously.

The FCC is evaluating ways to let mobile communications companies use C-band, especially for 5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks. Moakkit said each new technology generation — be it 3G, 4G or now 5G —  has grown into a “crescendo of repeated attempts to repurpose C-band.”

Sensing the crescendo growing louder than before, Intelsat teamed up with Intel to submit a proposal that would have satellite operators clear C-band in part or in full around metropolitan areas in exchange for financial compensation from mobile users. Several other satellite operators have either deferred opinions or publicly spoken against the idea.

Google is also a critic of Intelsat and Intel’s proposal. Clegg said Google doubts Intelsat’s timeline — that industry-led spectrum clearing could open up C-band in one to three years — and would rather support an approach that first uses the band for fixed broadband access. Mobile user access would come later, he said.

Moakkit said Google’s plan would only muddy the situation by introducing a second incumbent ahead of mobile operators that would then both demand protection.

“For us in the satellite industry, particularly for Intelsat as the largest holder of C-band rights for satellite around the globe, the most important objective is to ensure that we can protect our customers and protect the services that we provide,” he 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...