Intelsat, Intel Propose C-Band 5G Solution

IntelsatandIntel (no relation) are teaming up on a marketplace-based proposal to allow for joint use of parts of the C-band spectrum (3700-4200) for5G wireless, with satellite operators giving up spectrum in metro markets for a price set by the marketplace. That is the spectrum broadcast nets use to get their programming to stations, and stations use to get their programming to cable and satellite operators.

Intel and Intelsat argue that their proposal will be a voluntary, efficient and expeditious route to more spectrum for mobile broadband, while protecting their broadcast/cable clients from interference.

Wireless and computer companies have pushed for terrestrial use of C-band, while broadcasters have been worried about possible new interference to their critical broadcast distribution system.

But the FCC has been looking high and low (band) for more spectrum for mobile devices that are the way most folks are now accessing the internet of everything and in August asked for input on where it might find some, including in the C-band swath of spectrum.

The deadline was Monday (Oct. 2) for comments in the FCC's notice of inquiry on the possibilities of sharing C-band spectrum with wireless companies. Intel and Intelsat filed their joint proposal as comments in that proceeding.

Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler told B&C that they would be talking to wireless companies in the coming days and "expect them to be receptive."

Satellite operators have historically battled pretty heavily to protect their spectrum, as have federal agencies and others when asked to share, given that they have invested billions of dollars in the satellites and services.

Broadcast and cable operators obviously have a vested interest in protecting C-band satellite feeds.

For example, the North American Broadcasters Association told the FCC in its comments that "Allowing widespread new terrestrial uses in the portion of the C-band used for satellite downlinks will cause significant harm to existing services using that band and to the consumers who rely on those services."

And the National Association of Broadcasters told the FCC this week flatly that "mobile operations cannot coexist with existing C-band users."

But Intelsat and Intel say they have come up with a framework for targeted "joint" and "flexible terrestrial mobile use" of the C-band spectrum—they avoid the term "sharing" since there is a dynamic aspect to that which brings interference issues to the fore—that protects those broadcast feeds and allows for expanded use for 5G. They also said it could be accomplished in 1-3 years, less time than if the FCC had to come up with regulations on the band's shared use.

Spengler said the company's customers' interests are paramount and that Intelsat would be in "close and active" dialog with them.

They are proposing clearing some portions of the band for 5G use in "certain" major metro areas—certain regions would be easier to free up than others, clearing could include "transitioning their services and customers to another portion of the licensed C-band spectrum, physically moving ground antennas outside of the identified geographic area, or other means," they said.

Vince Roberts, former CTO of the Disney ABC TV Group, suggested the plan for flexible band use was a workable solution.

"Historically, cable programmers, and TV networks select their content distribution methods by evaluating the cost, coverage, quality of service, and reliability of the selected technology, just to name a few requirements," he told B&C. "Because Programmers need a reliable solid partner they can trust, they've traditionally turned to established satellite providers [like Intelsat] as the solution for delivery to MVPD’s and affiliates. Intelsat’s plan (in response to the FCC’s NOI) protects the industry’s programming content delivery infrastructure and builds a foundation for future delivery capabilities. C-band spectrum will be needed for years to come."

He said Intelsat was far from abandoning C-band, saying instead that "a market-based plan provides the industry with the certainty it needs to continue business well into the future."

Satellite operators would be furthering the commission's goal of freeing up more spectrum for mobile broadband, which they concede is "one of the great public policy challenges facing the FCC," and their customers would get the certainty that their feeds would not be subject to unwanted interference."

Intel's reason for backing the proposal is its long-standing goal of freeing up more 5G spectrum for the explosion of connected devices—many billions—with Intel inside, as it were. 

"Although Intelsat and Intel disagree over certain aspects of enabling terrestrial mobile operations in the 3700-4200 MHz band," they told the FCC in the comments, "they agree that the following joint proposal best serves the interests of all stakeholders in the near and long term and is far preferable to the other alternatives proffered in the [FCC notice of inquiry]."

The quid pro quo would be that wireless companies would need to compensate satellite operators for clearing the spectrum—Intelsat says the workarounds could be costly and complex—as well as for the opportunity cost of what they are foregoing in giving up the flexibility to deploy their satellites as they used to.

They are not looking for a government auction—the FCC asked in the NOI whether a reverse auction like the broadcast incentive auction, might be the way to go.

So, instead of an FCC action, a consortium of satellite operators would make the spectrum available and it would go to whatever wireless operator found that spectrum "most interesting," said an Intelsat exec speaking on background—essentially a private instead of public auction.

Intelsat points out that will be in metro areas, where the wireless companies most need the spectrum for 5G.

The key to the proposal for Intelsat is to ensure the continued quality of their satellite distribution services.

"The ability to reach commercial agreements with mobile network operators will enable the satellite companies to make the technical and operational adjustments to allow joint satellite and terrestrial mobile use of the spectrum using a competitive, market-based process," Intel and Intelsat tell the FCC according to a summary obtained by B&C News. "This will ensure that the spectrum is used by the parties who value it most highly—maximizing benefits to the public. Intelsat and other satellite operators C-band spectrum rights would remain unchanged.

"The parties believe that the current rights holders of the spectrum are in the best position to determine and execute the necessary technical and operational changes necessary to make joint-use a possibility."

Spengler would not comment on any conversations they may have had with FCC execs, but an ex parte filing shows that Intelsat execs met with top Pai staffers last week.

But he did say: "We believe our filing is a creative solution to the issue posed by the FCC’s August 3 NOI, which asks for ideas that would support the U.S. in accelerating innovation and maintaining its leadership in deployment of mobile broadband. We have proposed a creative, market-based approach and we believe it will create a positive dialogue.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.