WASHINGTON — Satellite fleet operator SES, the industry partner whose support Intelsat and Intel need the most for their proposal to open C-band the U.S. has designated for satellites to 5G wireless networks hungry for more spectrum, is willing to go along with the plan, but with one major caveat: not the whole band.

In a statement provided to SpaceNews, SES spokesperson Markus Payer said SES is “open to exploring any approach to a joint use of C-band only if it meets two essential criteria: it must create appropriate financial incentives to justify the extremely high cost of such an approach, and it must ensure that we can continue to deliver services to our customers without any disruption.”

SES believes that “we cannot achieve this unless we open only a limited portion of the respective band,” he said.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission allots 500 MHz of C-band spectrum to satellite operators, who use it primarily for satellite television broadcasts. Such broadcasts constitute the largest chunk of revenue for most fixed satellite services providers. Those 500 MHz in the U.S. are the focus of Intelsat and Intel’s proposal.

In the U.S., satellite operators have access to the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz range of C-band. The total block of spectrum designated as C-band stretches from 3.4 to 4.2 GHz, but the FCC has already divvied up the first 300 MHz between federal users and the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS. Internationally, most of the world already allocated 3.4 to 3.6 GHz for mobile users two years ago at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference.

SES, writing to the FCC Nov. 15 just before the comment window closed on the commission’s mid-band spectrum notice of inquiry, said the company is evaluating Intelsat and Intel’s plan, but “does not agree that any such approach could apply to the entire 500 MHz C-band downlink allocation.” Payer declined to say how much of the band SES is willing to open.

SES satellites reach more than 100 million U.S. households using C-band, a feat the company argues won’t be possible if the full 500 MHz could was potentially subject to 5G mobile users even in limited parts of the U.S.

“[I]n order to maintain service to customers in such a scenario, SES would need to deploy more satellites with C-band capacity, at a cost ranging from $150 million to $250 million in capital expenditure per satellite,” SES wrote. “Addition of those satellites will be paired with a necessary reconfiguration of the associated ground network that will require further significant investments.”

Intelsat and Intel’s plan involves 5G operators paying satellite operators for the cost of migrating customers to different swaths of the C-band on a case-by-case basis. This “extremely complicated task,” as SES puts it, would run up expenses “in billions of dollars.”

SES and Intelsat together control more than 90 percent of the C-band spectrum in the U.S.

Eutelsat, Telesat still undecided.

Two other global fleet operators with C-band capacity over the U.S. continue to evaluate Intelsat and Intel’s plan.

Paris-based Eutelsat chief executive Roldolphe Belmer told SpaceNews by email Nov. 15 that “Eutelsat is still assessing all the possible consequences of a market-based approach to release [a] portion of satellite C-band for terrestrial use.”

Five Eutelsat satellites — Eutelsat 113 West A, Eutelsat 115 West B, Eutelsat 117 West A, Eutelsat 117 West B and Eutelsat 172A — have C-band capacity with total or partial coverage of the U.S. In the operator’s Nov. 15 FCC filing, Eutelsat said it has “significant questions and in some cases concerns” about Intelsat and Intel’s proposal. Eutelsat used the filing in part to highlight several non-broadcast uses of C-band, including connecting U.S. oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, enabling voice and broadband in Alaska, and U.S. government customers in Hawaii using C-band to stay in contact with Asia.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s WAAS, or Wide Area Augmentation System, hosted payload on Eutelsat 117 West B, used to hone the accuracy of GPS signals for aircraft navigation and landing, also uses the upper portion of the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz band, Eutelsat said.

Canadian satellite operator Telesat, which has three satellites covering the full continental U.S. in C-band, told the FCC yesterday that “The Intelsat-Intel proposal raises a number of complex technical and business issues that need to be assessed, which Telesat is now doing.”

Telesat said it might provide further comments on Intelsat and Intel’s plan after completing that assessment.

Neither the Satellite Industry Association nor the Global VSAT Forum — both prominent industry trade groups — made mention of the Intelsat-Intel proposal in Nov. 15 letters to the FCC. The Global VSAT Forum said roughly 180 C-band satellites are in orbit today, constituting $50 billion of in-orbit investments. The Satellite Industry Association rebuffed terrestrial telecom companies claiming C-band use is in decline as in “conflict with the incontrovertible facts.”

Speedcast opposition

Satellite network operator Speedcast of Hong Kong, one of the largest buyers of satellite capacity, critiqued Intelsat and Intel’s proposal as neglecting the views of earth station operators, essentially biasing the proposal.

“Spectrum sharing with terrestrial services does not happen at the geostationary arc; it happens on the ground where earth station operators and service providers deliver gateway and end-user services,” Speedcast wrote to the FCC. “All C-band earth station operators and service providers must have a seat at any table where spectrum access issues that are fundamental to their business are considered.”

Speedcast said Intelsat and Intel’s proposal misses that even with satellite operators voluntarily clearing portions of C-band, in some cases that will be “infeasible due to customer obligations or operational necessity.”

“Speedcast cannot accept any process whereby one or more self-appointed C-band satellite operators negotiates spectrum access arrangements on behalf of earth station operators and service providers without their input or consent,” the company wrote.

Intelsat, Intel undeterred

Intelsat and Intel restated to the FCC in a joint filing Nov. 15 that their plan will make mid-band spectrum available for 5G much faster (one to three years) than a government-led reallocation effort (six to 18 years). The companies also note that their plan avoids the challenges associated with sharing the same spectrum simultaneously between satellite and mobile users — an idea the satellite industry says causes severe interference to satellite communications and is therefore not a feasible solution.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...