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Spectrum spat surrounding satellites sizzles softly

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FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has let us know what he’s going to be doing throughout November, and there is a risk of a bit of bickering appearing.

Just as public sector employees around the world start winding down for Christmas, Pai is packing his November with a broad range of activities. From tackling Robocallers, Next Generation TV, retraction of pointless regulation to media ownership, possibly the most interesting area is surrounding the availability of spectrum.

“Another top Commission priority is unleashing more spectrum to spur the rollout of next-generation 5G wireless networks,” said Pai in a blog post. “To that end, the Commission will vote on an order that would make available another 1,700 megahertz of high-frequency spectrum for flexible terrestrial wireless use while providing 4 gigahertz for core satellite use.

“This decision would build on the 11 gigahertz of spectrum that we made available for flexible terrestrial wireless use last year and would be a major marker in the United States’ efforts to lead the world in 5G innovation.”

The vote is set to take place at the next open meeting scheduled for 16 November, but there might be a few people who find issue with the starring role satellite is being given in the 5G world. There are of course two sides to the argument here, and the decision to more readily assist the satellite companies (at the possible detriment of the telcos) will almost certainly polarise opinion.

The satellite sub-sector will be delighted by such positive messages slipping out of Pai’s office. The FCC has been the recipient of several letters from heavy hitters in the satellite space in recent months, each requesting additional spectrum resources to make a more substantial contribution to the communications segment in the US.

The telco industry naturally is against any such move. They of course have to fight and bicker to get their hands on such valuable resource, and of course it does not come cheaply either. T-Mobile US has blasted the satellite industry for seeking additional spectrum, and has also found issue with the satellite providers proposing limitations for mobile broadband. To make things worse, the satellite providers might not even have to pay for it either…

You can start to see why the telcos are finding grievance. And before you pin the moaning down to T-Mobile US being T-Mobile US, the magenta army are not alone. Verizon has called on the FCC to reject any new proposals, arguing the commission has already offered enough protections to the satellite industry. Any more would not be deemed fair or justified.

“The Commission should not now disturb that generous compromise by going even further in response to the reconsideration petitions filed by the never-satisfied satellite industry,” said Gregory Romano, Verizon’s Associate General Counsel.

Looking specifically at the numbers, there is a solid argument for the telcos, who will be pushing the FCC to clip the wings of the space cadets. According to 5G Americas, 325 million mobile subscriptions in the US, this compares to 2 million satellite customers globally. When you look at these numbers and these numbers alone, you have to question why the FCC is considering such favourable conditions for the satellite space when all the demand is being managed by the telcos in the mobile space.

Of course, there is a counter argument. Another one of the main initiatives which is faced by the FCC is bridging the digital divide. This is an issue when you look at poorer communities in the cities, but it is a much larger problem out in the rural communities, where connectivity is tricky (putting it politely).

This has been on the agenda for almost as long as the internet has existed, and the telcos have always made promises about addressing it. While we are sure there are a few individuals who are fighting for the digital rights of the rural communities, the challenge has seemingly been ignored by the telcos. The divide has not gotten smaller, and some may argue is it only getting larger.

Satellite is a very real option to address this challenge, as it removes the need to sort out the physical infrastructure to fuel connectivity. Telcos have argued this is a very time consuming and expensive activity, which is perhaps one of the reasons why we haven’t seen progress. Why should you prioritize a few farmers in Idaho, when you can boost profits by a little bit more each year? Don’t forget, this is an industry which has seen profits erode over the last couple of years, non-critical projects will get kicked back a bit every now and then.

The challenge has been there and not addressed so far, so why shouldn’t the satellite companies be given the chance to contribute to the 5G revolution in their own way? In this light, although we do accept this is only one area, the telcos have had their chance and done nothing.

This is certainly an area which has the potential to develop into quite a bickering mess, and who knows, maybe we have another couple of lawsuits to look forward to.

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