Satellite industry faces spectrum shortage, but will have to share with MNOs

Tensions between the satellite and terrestrial wireless communities have been rising for years as mobile operators (often backed by their governments) have tried to muscle into satellite spectrum. They have often argued that satellite spectrum is underused, while MNOs face a shortage of airwaves, but as the 5G era approaches, satellite is actually enhancing its role in the patchwork of broadband delivery, and there is a rising need for both sides to drop hostilities and work together in many areas of 5G, from spectrum sharing to combined access and backhaul solutions for connecting the underserved.

Many of these arguments are rehearsed first in the US, and at the FCC’s next meeting on November 16, some of the key issues will be on the table when the regulator considers an order which would open up a huge 1.7 GHz of new high frequency spectrum for terrestrial wireless use, and 4 GHz for satellite.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a blog post that this spectrum would build on the 11 GHz which the agency made available for flexible terrestrial wireless use last year, and would be important for 5G. Both are part of the Spectrum Frontiers program to open up spectrum above 24 GHz for 5G.

However, while the MNOs build up their resources to support 5G, the satellite industry also has grand ambitions, and more than 10 proposed new satellite constellations or projects are waiting for FCC consideration. Companies like ViaSat and Oneweb believe that satellite must be regarded as part of 5G because it is the only way to make wireless broadband access completely universal.

ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg said in a statement: “Based on our initial review of the FCC’s draft Spectrum Frontiers order, we believe the FCC recognized the important role satellite broadband plays connecting critically important applications – from providing rural service to bridging the digital divide to assisting our armed forces with advanced national security, cyber and defense communications.”

But while the FCC may be striking a thoughtful if fragile balance between the interest groups, many on both sides are in no mood for cooperation. In an FCC filing last week, T-Mobile USA criticized the satellite industry for seeking additional spectrum, arguing it does not fully use what it has.

“Unlike terrestrial providers of broadband services, they object to participating in auctions to secure spectrum rights. But dedicating spectrum for only one type of mobile broadband—satellite mobile broadband—is poor spectrum management,” T-Mobile wrote.

And Verizon expressed concerns that the Spectrum Frontiers Order would provide satellite companies with a “windfall” by creating interference zones around some grandfathered and new earth stations.

However, a group of eight satellite firms, including Boeing, OneWeb and Hughes, is claiming the moral high ground by submitting a revised proposal for spectrum sharing in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands. They claim this strikes a fair balance between the needs of the Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) and the Upper Microwave Flexible Use Service (UMFUS) in the 28 and 39 GHz bands, and that the framework could be the basis for sharing in the 47 GHz and 50 GHz bands.

OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler told a Senate committee last week: “If you went to Verizon and said ‘we’re thinking about taking back the 700 MHz, the 1.9, maybe’ … it would just halt investment overnight. Don’t play with spectrum. This stuff that we’re doing takes seven years to build and tens of billions of dollars to do it at the scale we’re talking about.”

Wyler was arguing that OneWeb shows how essential satellite remains, to bring access to underserved communities and bridge the digital divide. Testifying at a hearing about the future of the commercial satellite sector, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology, Wyler said he aimed to deliver 2.5Gbps speeds direct to a rural home by 2021. “We’re actually asking the question: Why can’t rural be faster?” he said.

“We’ve known the potential, but we haven’t had the technology to accomplish it,” he added. “The key is making these satellites smaller and smaller. ”OneWeb is also working on an antenna which could be installed on a vehicle.

The company will deploy a global network of 720 low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites using the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands to provide global internet connectivity. It has raised nearly $2bn in equity from shareholders including Qualcomm, Hughes, Intelsat, Coca-Cola, Airbus, Virgin and Softbank.

ViaSat and IntelSat also testified before the hearing and all three agreed that spectrum was the number one issue for satellite providers, not just for MNOs. But the satellite players have recognized that they will need to share spectrum with mobile providers, or risk losing out in a head-to-head battle. Dankberg told the committee: “I think the real issue here is not dedicating spectrum only to satellite at the detriment” of others. “It’s really working on sharing because there’s a finite amount of spectrum.”

For instance, Intelsat, working with Intel, recently proposed a framework for sharing the C-band spectrum, protecting incumbent satellite media interests while also allowing it to be used for 5G. The FCC is keen to get better use out of a portion of the C-Band spectrum from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz. Some players want a similar shared structure to the three-tiered CBRS scheme, proposed for the nearby 3.5 GHz band, to be expanded up to 4.2 GHz.

Intelsat and Intel are suggesting that the FCC allow co-primary terrestrial mobile operations in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band through commercial arrangements between MNOs and relevant fixed satellite service (FSS) operators. The latter group would work cooperatively to identify areas of the country where they could undertake the “complicated and costly” process of clearing portions of the band for terrestrial use.