PARIS – The U.S. regulatory decision that denied protected status to satellite systems that have been investing in Ka-band spectrum, and cast doubt about the viability for satellite systems of other slices radio spectrum, has been met with a curiously muted response by the satellite sector.

The same companies that before the July 14 decision had invested heavily in high-powered legal talent to urge the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reverse its course had surprisingly little to say once the ruling was announced.

Several industry officials said they would need time to study the implications of the complex ruling, designed to open spectrum above 24 gigahertz to next-generation, or 5G, wireless broadband services.

An FCC chairman still smarting after WRC-15

Two industry officials said the tepid response by satellite operators followed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s warning that he would not take kindly to any negative statements issued after the ruling.

“We were told the chairman wanted us to say nothing, and that if we felt compelled to say something, that it should be neutral in tone,” one industry official said. “We were told the chairman was still angry with the satellite industry after WRC-15.”

WRC-15, or the World Radiocommunication Conference, was the most recent meeting of global wireless spectrum regulators. Wheeler and the U.S. delegation had urged that studies begin on the shared use of Ka-band spectrum between 5G and satellite systems, a proposal the satellite sector successfully defeated.

Wheeler made clear his unhappiness about this in a March speech to satellite companies and referenced WRC-15 in the July 14 hearing before the decision. “Every effort was made to stop us” in Geneva, he said.

FCC spokesman Charles Meisch said the agency would decline comment on whether Wheeler had sent out word that satellite companies should refrain from criticizing the 5G ruling.

The U.S. Satellite Industry Association, which represents most of the companies that had a stake in the 5G ruling, on July 15 issued a statement that three SIA members agreed was a strained attempt to not say what it wanted to say:

“SIA recognizes the FCC’s effort to address some of the significant concerns of the satellite industry about the potential for interference to existing and planned systems,” the association said. “SIA is also encouraged b the provisions pertaining to Earth stations operating in the 28 GHz band…. We… appreciate the commission’s willingness to revisit the issue as needed.

“There are many sophisticated technical issues posed by this rulemaking, and we are eager to fully evaluate the rules that have been adopted.”

Asked if SIA had been advised by the FCC not to make critical public statements, the association said July 15 that its president, Tom Stroup, “was never contacted by the FCC or Chairman Wheeler since the sunshine period went into effect and therefore we were never advised by the FCC about making negative comments concerning the ruling.”

Fearing interference

The number and variety of current and prospective satellite operators submitting opinions to the FCC suggest its importance to the satellite sector.

They include Boeing, EchoStar, Hughes Network Systems, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Iridium, O3b Networks, OneWeb, SES, SpaceX and ViaSat. The Europe, Middle East and Africa Operators Association and SIA also submitted separate opinions.

Not all focused on 28 GHz. Boeing, for example, has filed to U.S. and international regulators a proposal for a V-band satellite Internet constellation and wanted an FCC commitment that V-band frequency allocations to 5G networks would not interfere with a planned satellite system.

The FCC mainly rejected that argument, saying that to date there are not V-band satellite networks under construction or about to enter construction.

Boeing issued a statement saying it would reserve comment “until we have completed a thorough review. In the meantime, our position is that we support a spectrum-sharing scheme and regulatory approach that would enable future satellite-based broadband services, maximizing consumer choices, including in rural and remote areas.”

Broadband satellite systems in the United States have already begun to deploy Earth stations in the 28 GHz band under the assumption that they would face no mobile interference in that frequency.

A disputed regulatory history at 28 GHz

The legislative history of the 28 GHz band is a subject of dispute. Satellite companies say they have relied on priority access to it for years and made substantial investments accordingly.

The 5G community, led by The Wireless Association CTIA, said satellite operators have, in effect, squatted the bandwidth on the assumption that no potentially interfering user would lay claim to the same spectrum.

The FCC acknowledged in its decision the potential for interference between 5G and satellite services, but nonetheless said it would authorize 5G mobile, granting satellite uses “secondary” status. “The investments satellite operators have made in Ka-band operations were made with the knowledge of their secondary status,” the FCC said.

Carlsbad, California-based Viasat Inc disputed this. SES and O3b endorsed ViaSat’s argument in a letter to the FCC.

ViaSat, which operates Ka-band satellites for fixed consumer broadband and aeronautical mobile services for commercial and government customers, has perhaps more to lose with the commission’s ruling than any other established satellite operator.

ViaSat said the FCC has already approved seven satellite networks, with 40 gateway Earth stations, using the 28-GHz spectrum. These include three ViaSat satellites, one of which is in service; and satellites owned by Hispamar of Spain; O3b Networks, recently purchased by satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg; Inmarsat of London; and consumer broadband provider Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Maryland.

These authorizations gave these companies “settled expectations and legal rights” to 28 GHz, ViaSat said. “Billions of dollars have been spent and even more has been committed to deploy these networks. Changing the ground rules would affect both operating networks and those currently under development.”

SES, which in addition to owning the O3b Ka-band broadband satellite constellation is weighing an investment in a global Ka-band system for aeronautical connectivity and other uses, chose to look on the bright side of the decision.

“SES welcomes the protections the FCC has introduced, and its willingness to continue reviewing the risk of aggregate interference into 28 GHz satellites,” the company said in a statement. “SES recognizes that the introduction of mobile operations into this spectrum presents a unique situation given the existing regulatory framework and uses of these frequencies in the United States, and requires a tailored approach and on-going cooperation among the stakeholders.”

ViaSat uncomfortably on the front line

ViaSat had gone out of its way in the months since WRC-15 to avoid a confrontation with the FCC. The company was criticized by other satellite operators for its “one-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” public statements about the effects of sharing the spectrum with 5G mobile.

But a large part of the “billions of dollars” that ViaSat said had already been spent at 28 GHz was ViaSat’s own money.

Asked to comment on the FCC decision, ViaSat said:

“Upon initial review, we believe… the order provides an approach that gives satellite operators the ability to operate and expand alongside terrestrial wireless networks. The order recognizes the need for additional study of technical sharing issues and we will continue working with the commission and other stakeholders to address those concerns.

“[C]larity is still needed about the specifications of the 5G technology, time frame and opportunity, and we will have to see how that plays out over the coming years.”

ViaSat had told the FCC that discussions between the 5G community and satellite companies about interference issues had become so fraught that they had been discontinued and would need FCC mediation to restart.

The issue is on the agenda for global regulators at WRC-19. Whether FCC Chairman Wheeler will still be in his job then is unknown. But on July 21 the FCC all but guaranteed a lively spectrum debate inside the U.S. delegation by naming CTIA General Counsel Thomas C. Power as chair of the FCC’s WRC-19 advisory group. The vice chair: Christopher J. Murphy, ViaSat’s general counsel.

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