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Nokia starts US C-Band trials as Intelsat begins to clear airwaves

While it won’t be until the end of 2023 until Intelsat has completely shifted operations out of the valuable 3.7-4 GHz spectrum band, slow progress is at least progress.

With the US telecoms operators facing difficulty in delivering the promise of 5G to customers without access to attractive mid-band spectrum, the FCC has been working to clear these airwaves. Today’s confirmation of a concrete plan from Intelsat to shift its operations to the 4-4.2 GHz spectrum band offers a glimmer of hope, but it will not be a rapid transition. The 3.7-4 GHz spectrum band will be cleared as follows:

  • 7 to 3.82 GHz will be cleared by December 5, 2021
  • 82 to 4.0 GHz will be cleared by December 5, 2023

It is not entirely clear when this spectrum will be made available to the telecoms operators, though that has not stopped Nokia delivering its first trials in the band.

“This test, in the C-band, is significant because it proves that we have a solution ready-to-go following the completion of the spectrum auctions in the US later this year,” said Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia.

“We are already working with all major US carriers and look forward to strengthening our relationship with them further by deploying C-band and delivering incredible 5G experiences to business and subscribers across the country.”

As part of the trial, Nokia claims to have achieved download speeds exceeding 1 Gbps making use of 100 MHz of spectrum at 3.75 GHz in non-standalone mode. Base station handovers were completed successfully while connection and performance was stable throughout the test.

As Uitto points out, there are auctions slated for December, though these are entirely dependent on legal action which has been filed against the FCC. Even if the legal complications are avoided and the auction conducted, the airwaves would have to be vacated by current incumbents, and the telecoms operators would have to mobilise efforts.

Nokia, the FCC and Intelsat might be making the right noises, suggesting progress is being made, but it will still be some time before these valuable airwaves are up-and-running for US telecoms operators.

Starting with the Intelsat complications, the team has filed documents with the FCC to detail the transition from the 3.7-4 GHz portion of the C-band to 4-4.2 GHz. Should Intelsat be able to clear the airwaves by the aforementioned deadlines, it would be entitled to $4.87 billion in incentive payments, a potential net profit of $3.16 billion when costs are taken accounted for.

As part of the plan, Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman have been enlisted to design and manufacture seven satellites to deliver existing commitments for media distribution and contribution services over the 4-4.2 GHz spectrum band. The team will also install 60,000 5G signal-blocking filters to prevent interference and consolidate multiple telemetry, tracking and control (TT&C)/Gateway antennas into two locations. It is a big task, but the cash reward is a suitable incentive.

These plans will have to run smoothly for Intelsat to free up the airwaves for 5G operations, but there is also a sticky court case to deal with.

In April, PSSI Global Services said it was suing the FCC in an attempt to halt the reorganisation of the C-band spectrum. The satellite firm suggested the regulator was ‘crippling’ an entire industry for the progress of 5G. The company has said its business is at risk of closure due to the plans.

While there will always be resistance to change, the filing of a lawsuit presents complications for the FCC. Let’s not forget, the US is a much more litigious nation than most, and a lawsuit can clog up the gears of progress if the right legal and media strategy is employed. Before any auction could take place, this conflict will have to be resolved.

Assuming this legal hurdle is navigated, the auction place takes place on time and the satellite companies vacate the airwaves on schedule, the telecoms operators will then have to deploy the relevant infrastructure and equipment. This could be as time consuming as any other element of the story.

In short, there is plenty which could go wrong to ensure the US telecoms operators do not access the valuable mid-band spectrum for some time.

This is an issue for the US, as the available low-band spectrum is only able to offer a minor upgrade on 4G connectivity, while mmWave airwaves are proving an absolute flop. Without mid-band assets to complete the connectivity patchwork, telecoms operators will struggle to deliver a competent 5G service, or at least one which is anywhere near the promise, and will therefore struggle to generate ROI on the billions being spent on network deployment.

As it stands, only T-Mobile US has access to mid-band spectrum, it inherited 2.1 GHz licences as part of the Sprint merger. This puts in it the healthiest position. Some might wonder whether executives for the Magenta Army hope the status quo of complication continues well into the future. On the one hand, spectrum auctions offer and opportunity to acquire valuable assets, conversely, a stalemate inhibits rivals creating a potential leadership position.

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