Inmarsat HQ
Inmarsat's London headquarters. Credit: Inmarsat

TAMPA, Fla. — Inmarsat is seeking permission from Greece to move a ground station there from the Netherlands, which wants to sell the C-band spectrum the site uses for maritime safety services to 5G wireless operators.

The British satellite operator previously argued that moving out of the northern Netherlands village of Burum was unnecessary because it was possible its services could share the spectrum band with 5G operators.

However, the company said May 13 it is working with authorities in Greece to secure a license following recommendations from an external committee, which was appointed by the Dutch government to find ways to sell the operator’s 3.5 GHz frequencies without interfering with safety services. 

Inmarsat had taken the Dutch government to court last year over an initial plan to sell the 3.5 GHz band it partly uses for these emergency services for 5G operators to use from September 2022.

A Dutch administrative court in June suspended this spectrum auction plan, and ordered Inmarsat and the government to find a solution for releasing the frequencies for 5G that does not impact safety services.

According to the external advisory committee, Inmarsat should move from Burum but part of the operator’s 3.5 GHz spectrum should not go to wireless operators until the operator sets up a ground station elsewhere.

Their report was presented to the government May 12 to recommend moving the ground station to Greece, and auctioning the 3.5 GHz frequencies so they are available to mobile operators by December 2023. 

If Inmarsat has not moved its ground station by then, the report said it should be allowed to continue operating the site but with a smaller 80 MHz swath of the spectrum.

Inmarsat’s maritime-safety ground station in Burum currently uses 126 MHz of the band. 

The frequencies are used for a mix of commercial and safety services that Inmarsat spokesperson Matthew Knowles said cannot be decoupled.

“Throughout this process Inmarsat has sought to protect these essential safety services, on which millions of people rely every day, while offering a practical way forward to enable 5G mobile telecommunications in the Netherlands to begin quickly,” Inmarsat chief operating officer Jason Smith said in an emailed statement.

Smith added: “Inmarsat will continue to operate in the current spectrum from Burum before moving operations — but not people — to a new location outside the Netherlands once a licence elsewhere is confirmed. Inmarsat is working with the authorities in Greece to secure a licence to operate there.”

The London-based company has another ground station in this part of the world at Fucino in central Italy, however, the company says it requires two stations in this European region for redundancy because its safety services demand high reliability and performance levels. 

Inmarsat, which is in the process of being sold to U.S.-based satellite operator Viasat for $7.3 billion, provides maritime safety capabilities free of charge to users through services stemming from its history as an intergovernmental organization founded in the 1970s.

The operator has ground stations in nine countries that provide safety services worldwide: Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France, Japan, India, Russia, China and Vietnam.  

Harald Hanemaaijer, spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, said the Dutch government will comment on the advisory report in a letter to its Parliament “before the summer.” 

“On the basis of the advice, the Ministry of Economic Affairs will draw up a new decision to amend the so-called National Frequency Plan (NFP) and in the meantime will continue to consult with the satellite company about facilitating its intended move to Greece,” the Dutch government said in a May 12 news release.

The committee says its recommendations have the backing of mobile network operators in addition to Inmarsat. 

Behind other European countries, the Netherlands sold its first batch of 5G-suitable spectrum in 2020 in the 700 MHz, 1.4 GHz and 2.1 GHz bands.

The Netherlands joins many other countries worldwide that have recently made moves to sell satellite C-band frequencies to boost 5G services. 

The U.S. raised more than $81 billion from auctioning off a chunk of C-band spectrum last year — Intelsat, SES and other satellite operators in the country are still working to clear all the frequencies that were sold for terrestrial use.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...