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US heads towards C-Band but critics create risk of legal action

The FCC has proposed new actions which would finally make valuable mid-band spectrum available to telcos, but it is not without opponents.

For five years the FCC has been attempting to figure out how it can free-up the C-Band spectrum airwaves, and now it seems to have finally made some progress. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the country’s largest ever spectrum auction, with 22,000 country-wide licences available in the 3.55-3.65 GHz, though the US will have to swallow a $14.7 billion bill for satellite companies to vacate the space. This is the issue for some.

“Shelling out billions for airwaves we already own is no way to handle taxpayer money – especially when taxpayers want those dollars to support rural broadband,” said Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana.

“People say appetites grow by indulgence, and it’s true: These foreign satellite firms want all four feet and their snout in the taxpayer trough. The FCC shouldn’t be helping them.”

Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat, Telesat and Embratel Star One have all demonstrated to the FCC they have commercial activities in the C-Band airwaves which would be negatively impacted by the proposals. Licences will expire towards the end of the decade, though the FCC has said it would make funds available to accelerate the process of vacating these valuable airwaves.

Senator Kennedy seemingly believes the satellite operators can be kicked off the airwaves at the drop of a hat as they are leaseholders of the assets not owners. The statement generally ignores well established commercial practices, though this is a man in an influential position.

The US Senate Committee on Appropriations regulates expenditures of money by the government. The FCC is under the jurisdiction of the Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, of which Senator Kennedy is the Chairperson. If Senator Kennedy wants to throw a spanner into the auction mechanism, he certainly has the power to do so.

And despite the financial reward for relocated out of the C-Band airwaves, not all the satellite companies are happy with the situation.

“This Order is fatally flawed by its misinterpretations of the Communications Act, and by its numerous arbitrary and capricious conclusions,” said ABS CEO Jim Frownfelter. “The Small Satellite Operators (SSOs) are going to be harmed by the unlawful revocation of the right to use 60% of their licensed C-band spectrum, and we will ask the courts to overturn this Order and to instruct the FCC to start the entire process again.”

ABS is a global satellite operator, offering broadcasting, data and telecommunication services, through a fleet of satellites operating in the C-Band airwaves. The Small Satellite Operators (SSO) is a lobby group representing ABC alongside Hispasat and Embratel Star One, plan on launching legal action to halt the auction process.

What is developing is a very complicated situation. The C-Band airwaves are key to the efficient deployment of 5G services, though thanks to congestion, they are not immediately available to US telcos.

Almost everywhere else around the world, mid-band spectrum is forming the foundation of the drive towards 5G. The spectrum marries a palatable balance between high-speed data downloads and extended coverage, hence the popularity in the absence of network densification projects. With a reliance on high-band spectrum in the US, delivering the promised experience of 5G might be very difficult and expensive.

The proposals put forward by the FCC, a dynamic spectrum sharing policy, is a very interesting one. A three-tier hierarchy will be created to offer the US Navy primary use over the airwaves, though the vast majority of the time, second and third tier licence owners will make use. This is an interesting approach and could offer regulators around the world confidence to take a new approach to spectrum management, though the threat of legal complications in the Senate and courts paint a gloomy picture.

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