Satellite operators spar on spectrum sharing

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PARIS — Chief executives of satellite operators took sharply divergent views on working with terrestrial mobile operators on access to spectrum, with some advocating for negotiations while another warned of making any deals.

The difference of opinions expressed during a panel at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here Sept. 10 comes as discussions continue on a potential transfer of C-band satellite spectrum to mobile operators for 5G services in the United States and next year’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) that will take up other satellite spectrum proposals.

Intelsat Chief Executive Steve Spengler, the leading advocate for the U.S. C-band spectrum proposal, argued that while C-band globally is important for Intelsat, the company felt that, in the United States, it needed to work out an arrangement that will hand over some C-band spectrum to terrestrial operators.

“The key here is protecting the incumbents while addressing the reality that the 5G situation had to be addressed one way or another,” he said. “We’d rather have a situation where we’re managing it, where we’re controlling this process, to get the right outcome.”

Supporting that proposal is SES, who with Intelsat controls the vast majority of C-band satellite spectrum in the United States. “It was a unique situation in the U.S. where there was no other practical alternative in terms of where this would go,” said Steve Collar, president and chief executive of SES. “This was an opportunity to create something that was genuinely a win-win.”

Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg, left, and Telesat CEO Daniel Goldberg at World Satellite Business Week in Paris (SpaceNews/Brian Berger)
Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg, left, and Telesat CEO Daniel Goldberg at World Satellite Business Week in Paris (SpaceNews/Brian Berger)

However, Mark Dankberg, chairman and chief executive of Viasat, took a very different view. While Viasat is not involved in the C-band spectrum discussions in the U.S., he said his experience with debates about spectrum sharing at other frequencies led him to be skeptical about working with terrestrial operators.

“I don’t really see the mobile operators as our friends, because if they really wanted satellite as part of 5G, they wouldn’t be trying to take existing spectrum away from us, which will make our services less capable and more expensive,” he said.

“We all need to be extremely wary” about the benefits of sharing satellite spectrum with terrestrial operators, he cautioned. “I think that issue about spectrum is a hugely important issue for us.”

Rupert Pearce, chief executive of Inmarsat, tried to strike a middle ground in the debate. “I think we don’t do a good enough job as a community educating the world about the potential important differentiating role of satellite in a 5G world, and we don’t do a good enough job holding our nose and going in to talk to the [mobile network operators] about why they should regard us as collaborators,” he said. The satellite industry, he said, needs to explain to companies and governments those cases where 5G services can be best provided by satellite.

While Spengler advocated for a C-band deal in the U.S., he said it’s still important for the satellite industry to advocate for other spectrum at next year’s WRC. “There is still a lot of uncertainty around Ka-band,” he said, including concerns that regulations may no longer be globally harmonized.

“We have to stay together globally to make sure that we advocate for our interests just as others will be doing for theirs,” he said.