Satellite Operators’ 11th-hour Effort To Stop Wireless Industry’s Spectrum Grab

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PARIS — Several of the world’s largest commercial satellite fleet operators on Oct. 22 made an 11th-hour attempt to persuade global governments not to allow terrestrial broadband networks to use spectrum currently reserved for satellites.

​World radiocommunication conferences (WRC) are held every three to four years. WRC-15 will be held in Geneva Nov. 2-27. Credit: WRCCurrent indications are that the satellite forces will come away with only a partial victory at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) gathering of some 160 governments, scheduled Nov. 2-27 in Geneva.

The key contested point for WRC-15 is C-band spectrum between 3.4 and 4.2 GHz, which is now reserved for satellite services and is heavily used especially in the developing world.

C-band is still widely used in the most developed nations — mainly in the Northern Hemisphere — but its protection is not considered as much of a priority since higher frequencies, notably Ku-band, in recent years have replaced C-band for some services.

But even in regions where C-band is not a top priority, governments are loath to surrender the entire 3.4-4.2-GHz slice to what the ITU calls IMT, or International Mobile Telecommunications.

The U.S. government is among those willing to permit IMT into part of the band, but not all of it.

In an Oct. 14 briefing organized by the U.S. State Department, the head of the U.S.’s 170-member WRC-15 delegation said the United States supports allowing IMT into several parts of the spectrum, including UHF- and L-bands.

For C-band, the U.S. position is in favor of allowing IMT into the lower part of the spectrum at issue, 3.4-3.7 GHz, and would clarify that this stance is only for the Americas and not intended to be a worldwide recommendation.

“We support these bands even though we do not plan to implement IMT in every single band,” said Decker Anstrom, who will lead the U.S. delegation.

“We … have concerns about proposals to allocate C-band spectrum above 3.7,” Anstrom said. “The U.S. does not support [that] and we have filed a multi-country proposal for 3.4 to 3.7 for IMT.

“A number of countries [support opening] 3.4 to 3.6, but we have a strong no-change proposal above 3.7 because we are determined to protect vital C-band infrastructure that is very important, not only for television broadcasting, but also for weather services, ironically for mobile services, and a variety of other key functions the C-band industry provides. So we are absolutely committed to protecting C-band above 3.7,” Anstrom said.

For the satellite sector, the U.S. position — which is similar to the European position — raises the risk of diluting support for a flat refusal among developing countries to cede more frequency to IMT.

The Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations organization that organizes the quadrennial WRC conferences and regulates wireless spectrum and satellite orbital slots, on Oct. 22 published a pre-WRC-15 document summarizing the basic positions.

The document gave a prominent place to the European Satellite Operators Association, whose members include several of the largest commercial fleet operators, including SES and Intelsat of Luxembourg, Eutelsat of Paris, Inmarsat of London and Hispasat of Spain.

Rupert Pearce Inmarsat
Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce. Credit: Inmarsat video capture

Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce, now serving as president of the operators’ association, laid out the satellite case alongside the IMT sector’s chief lobbyist, the GSM Association.

More than 180 satellites in geostationary orbit operate in C-band, Pearce said, and these spacecraft in 2015 were key assets in coping with natural disasters including floods in Myanmar, an earthquake in Nepal and a cyclone in Vanuatu.

As satellite companies said in 2007, when that year’s WRC last tackled the C-band issue — a WRC that ended mainly with a satellite sector victory, but one with large holes in it — Pearce said the relatively weak C-band signals cannot coexist with IMT in the same band without impractical “exclusion zones” erected around C-band Earth stations to protect them from interference.

Pearce said even the decisions at the 2007 WRC, which “identified” C-band for possible IMT use for those nations that wanted the right to use it, have since “made it more difficult for satellite operators to get authorization to deploy Earth stations, despite the fact that very little use has been made of the band for IMT to date.”

Echoing what many satellite operators have said in recent months, Pearce said that the WRC-15 battle over C-band will be followed by a fight over Ka-band — 27.5-29.5 GHz — at the WRC scheduled for 2019.

As satellite operators have sought less-crowded frequencies in which to offer broadband services, they have moved from Ku- to Ka-band. Some 60 satellites in orbit are now operating in that frequency, and forecasts say that will rise to more than 100 within five years.

And that’s just in geostationary orbit. One or more constellations in lower orbit plan to use Ka-band. “Sharing in the Ka-band will entail similar constraints” on satellite ground stations as is the case in C-band if IMT is allowed into the band, he said.

David Pataki, vice president of regulatory affairs at the GSM Association, sidestepped specific frequency targets in his ITU position paper, saying only that, in general, “[i]ncumbent services need not lose out” if IMT moves into their neighborhoods. “Supporting new mobile bands at WRC-15 does not mean existing services must suddenly stop,” Pataki said. “Each individual country will decide how and when to license new mobile bands.”