Satellite operators mull options as pressure for Ka-band uplink spectrum mounts

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — Satellite operators, including many in Asia, are growing more concerned that regulators will repurpose valuable satellite spectrum for next-generation 5G cellular networks.  

Of concern is that regulators will require Ka-band spectrum at 28 gigahertz that satellite operators use today to send signals from gateways and, increasingly, user terminals up to their spacecraft. 

Satellite operators at the APSAT conference here June 25 said that while they will fight to keep the 28 gigahertz spectrum band, they are also preparing for ways to live with less of it, or without it. 

“With the challenge of Ka-band, we are trying as satellite operators to stand together and show the importance of it,” said Terry Bleakley, Intelsat’s Asia-Pacific regional vice president. 

Operators at the Satellite 2019 conference in May voiced concern that 5G cellular operators want to wrest control of the 28-GHz band, complicating the delivery of satellite broadband connectivity. 

SES spokesperson Suzanne Ong said by email that the battle over 28 GHz is now being waged on a country-by-country basis, with countries like the U.S. and South Korea pushing to expand cellular use of the spectrum. 

Jennifer Manner, EchoStar’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs, told SpaceNews by email that the 28-GHz band was “expressly rejected” as a subject for the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference that takes place in Egypt this fall. She cautioned, though, that there is “always an opportunity,” to have items added if there is support.

Yao Fahai, vice president of China Satcom, expressed concern that terrestrial communications operators will target satellite spectrum by adding future agenda items this fall for a future World Radiocommunication Conference. 

“They will explore more bands from the space segment,” he said at APSAT. “That’s a big headache.” 

The next World Radiocommunication Conference is in 2023.

The near-term threat of nations individually repurposing 28 GHz or the medium-term risk of it returning to global debate at a World Radiocommunication Conference has satellite operators nonetheless making contingency plans. 

“There are other bands we can look at for the uplink, higher up to Q- and V-bands, so we can go higher up the spectrum,” Bleakley said. “While we’ll look to protect the 28-GHz band, we will also look at other bands we can use.”

Adi Adiwoso, president and CEO of Indonesian satellite operator PSN, said that because the satellite uplink sites are less common, satellite and cellular operators could compromise by forming protective zones around satellite gateways that use 28 GHz frequencies. 

“We believe that there can be some kind of a harmony where they are limited, because the uplink side is for the gateways and there are not many of them,” he said. 

C-band, too

Satellite operators, especially in Asia, also remain concerned that cellular operators will chip away at more of the C-band spectrum they use to provide television broadcasts and other communications services. C-band spectrum has greater resistance to signal attenuation by rainstorms, making it the preferred spectrum for many Asia-Pacific satellite operators. 

Huang Baozhong, executive vice president of Hong Kong-based APT Satellite, said he is a pessimist when it comes to the future of C-band.  

“Looking at each country, it seems that they have less and less support for the satellite industry,” he said. 

Indonesia will likely be an exception, he said, but rumblings about a cellular sector push for C-band here have him worried since many of the company’s satellites use C-band spectrum. 

“We are still focusing on traditional C-band with the Ku-band, with an eye on the future of Ka-band high throughput, but we have no [alternative] at the moment,” he said. 

Adiwoso said C-band is under threat from 5G, and that PSN is waiting to see what the Indonesian government decides about the spectrum. 

Last year Baozhong and AsiaSat CEO Roger Tong blamed Intelsat for opening the floodgates on C-band. Intelsat teamed with Intel on a plan to allow cellular operators in the U.S. to use a portion of the C-band for 5G. SES, Eutelsat and Telesat joined the plan, which the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is considering as a means to make more spectrum available for 5G. 

Though Intelsat and its partners have described their C-band plan as specific to the U.S., APT Satellite, AsiaSat and the Asia Video Industry Association said its influence quickly spread to Asia. 

Bleakley said Intelsat had to devise a plan because of the mounting pressure in the U.S. for C-band.

“We had effectively, a gun pointed at our head,” he said. 

Bleakley said Intelsat still views it as important to protect the satellite industry’s use of C-band, saying the vast majority of Intelsat’s fleet of around 50 satellites carry C-band capacity. 

“We’ve made large investments throughout the world in C-band,” he said. “We also believe 5G is going to be a massive market for satellite, so we need to find a way of working more closely with the [mobile network operators] so we can cooperate when it makes sense to cooperate.”