PARIS—The simmering battle between the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and terrestrial-wireless operators on the one hand and providers of satellite broadband on the other is coming to a boil at the FCC’s July 14 meeting to review spectrum coveted by both sides.

The U.S. regulator for months has told the satellite sector that 5G wireless broadband is a national priority that will not be slowed just to protect a few satellite systems that claim they need exclusive access to certain frequencies and cannot share them.

Unlike the long-running satellite-terrestrial battle over C-band spectrum, satellite transmissions do not have clearly established priority rights to the spectrum now at issue before the FCC – a tranche of Ka-band spectrum at 28 gigahertz and, to a lesser degree, a second tranche at 37.5-40 gigahertz.

Much of the argument in recent weeks has been exactly what rights satellite transmissions around 28 GHz have with respect mobile terrestrial networks. Satellite operators say they have been investing in Ka-band networks based on assurances that no new entrants would interfere with their signals.

Another difference with the C-band debate is that, this time, the subject is about two-way interference. While 5G terrestrial mobile may interfere with satellite operations, satellite broadband uplinks might interfere with 5G.

Concern for past and ongoing satellite investment

Satellite services for years have been using the 28-GHz spectrum. Some of them are now asking the FCC at least to protect those existing investments.

“The Commission must protect the multibillion-dollar investments that have been made and are continuing to be made in 28-GHz,” satellite fleet operator SES’s SES Americom division and medium-Earth-orbit Ka-band constellation operator O3b Networks said in a Jul 7 filing to the FCC.

“Such protections are crucial given the long lead time associated with satellite projects, as the system being built and launched today have been in the planning and construction stages for years and were begun well prior to the Commission’s initiation of this rulemaking proceeding.”

The satellite sector battled the FCC to at least a draw in late 2015 during a meeting of global regulators at the World Radiocommunications Conference, organized by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was furious and told satellite companies last March: “I offer a bit of hard-earned experience: It is far more practical to get on the train than to be run over by it.”

Blocked at the global level, the FCC is now back on home turf and is delivering on its promise – or threat, depending on who’s listening – to open a slice of spectrum around 28 gigahertz to 5G terrestrial broadband. Also being debated is spectrum between 37 and 40 GHz.

FCC’s Wheeler: Share or beware

Wheeler returned this this theme in a June address in Washington:

“Sharing will be required between satellite and terrestrial wireless, an issue that is especially relevant in the 28 GHz band,” Wheeler said. “We will strike a balance that offers flexibility for satellite users to expand, while providing terrestrial licensees with predictability about the areas in which satellite will operate. However, we must reject any notion that the 5G future will be the sole province of urban areas. …

“Three months ago, I indicated as directly as I am capable that it would be advantageous for the satellite and mobile industries to come together to propose realistic ideas for their coexistence… and to do so quickly…. I am confident we will adopt rules that will enable satellite, terrestrial, and federal operations to coexist and thrive.”

International satellite fleet operators had hoped that the battle they waged together at WRC-15 would be fought in the United States by U.S. operators with a stake in 28 GHz at 37-39 GHz.

They had hoped especially that ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, California, which unlike rival EchoStar Corp. of Englewood, Colorado, does not have a corporate ownership with multiple irons in the spectrum fire, would make the case. While a U.S. spectrum policy decision affects only the United States, the size and value of the U.S. market, and its effect on the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL) at the ITU, makes a U.S. stance an important voice in future WRC decisions.

These international satellite operators have been disappointed in what they have called ViaSat’s hesitant stance.

ViaSat Chief Executive Mark D. Dankberg has said his company did not want to rule out coexistence with 5G terrestrial broadband at 28 GHz. Visibly uncomfortable with being asked to take the fight directly to his national regulator, Dankberg held out the hope that some tradeoff could be made to allow terrestrial and satellite to live together.

ViaSat praises the FCC

In the intervening months, ViaSat never lost an opportunity to praise the FCC, notably in late May following the FCC’s move to open the Connect America Fund – a $2-billion, 10-year broadband promotion initiative that the satellite sector had viewed as notoriously pro-terrestrial – to permit new service providers to bid for funding.

“We recognize and applaud Chairman Wheeler,” ViaSat said then. “With the FCC’s decision, all internet services, including ViaSat’s… are closer to competing for universal service funds on a level playing field.”

A month later, a ViaSat statement following Wheeler’s June 20 comments was titled: “ViaSat Encouraged by FCC Chairman Remarks on Creating a Balanced Spectrum Sharing Approach for the Future of 5G and Next-Generation Satellite Broadband.”

The U.S. Satellite Industry Association, of which ViaSat is a member, added is own scoop of praise, choosing to interpret Wheeler’s comments as promising interference-free operations by terrestrial and satellite services at 28 GHz.

But on July 5, now convinced that the FCC was moving to introduce 5G into spectrum that ViaSat, among others, had been developing, ViaSat abandoned its reserve.

“The FCC’s proposed approach puts new 5G operations ahead of licensed satellite. Satellite receivers would not be protected against 5G interference,” ViaSat said in a statement to the U.S. regulator. “Proposed rules could unfairly require satellite Earth stations to cease transmission to make room for 5G. This proposed approach hurts existing and future broadband for millions of Americans.”

Nokia and other terrestrial wireless companies, many represented by CTIA, have made multiple statements to the FCC saying that coexistence is possible.

The FCC’s open meeting on July 14 will consider an order and a notice of proposed rulemaking on access to spectrum by wireless services including 5G.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.