Intelsat: Show Us the C-Band Money

WASHINGTON — Intelsat, which provides the distribution pathway that broadcast and cable networks use to get their programming out, says it has come up with a way for terrestrial mobile wireless companies to share that satellite spectrum — for a price.

The idea is to first clear some key midband (3.7 to 4.2 Gigahertz) spectrum in metro markets; wireless companies would then pay for the use of that spectrum for 5G. The plan is similar to the broadcast incentive auction, where TV stations were compensated for clearing some of the band for wireless, only with a consortium of satellite spectrum holders getting the money.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has asked for input on how to free up more midband spectrum for 5G. Along with closing the digital divide, getting spectrum for advanced mobile wireless is one of the commission’s top priorities, particularly since advancing mobile broadband serves that deployment goal as well, so he is likely to be receptive to creative solutions.

But broadcasters and cable operators are warning the FCC not to allow sharing of the C-band spectrum without ensuring that it will not interfere with, as NCTA–The Internet & Television Association put it to the agency, “millions of hours of content” being delivered to “thousands of cable headends.”

Intelsat, which uses its C-band satellite spectrum to deliver that programming, thinks it has a solution that will do just that.

It teamed up last week with computer chip giant Intel — Intel is inside the billions of connected devices that will be powered by 5G — to propose a private auction framework that would have wireless companies pay them to clear off targeted spectrum in cities where spectrum is most needed. That can be done while protecting broadcast and cable customers from interference, Intelsat said.

The quid pro quo is that wireless companies would need to compensate satellite operators for clearing the spectrum — Intelsat said 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.

Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler told Multichannel News the company would be talking to wireless companies in the coming days and “expects them to be receptive.”

Of the proposal, he said: “We are able to satisfy the desire to support future 5G implementations, but in a way that introduces a framework that protects the quality of the services we provide to media companies and other satellite users. We’re welcoming wireless companies, our customers, the industry and others to join us in supporting this proposal.”

Buying In Is No Easy Decision

Satellite operators have historically fought hard to protect their spectrum, given that they’ve invested billions of dollars in the satellites and services that use it and fear interference from other users, as do their broadcast clients. Intelsat’s willingness to propose joint use is, therefore, something of a shift.

But broadcasters and cable operators will clearly need some convincing.

The National Association of Broadcasters has told the FCC that “mobile operations cannot coexist with existing C-band users,” and the American Cable Association says any proposal must be subject to the Hippocratic principle: First do no harm.

But Intelsat and Intel said theirs is 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 one to three years, which is less time than if the FCC had to come up with regulations on the band’s shared use.

Spengler said customer interest is paramount, adding that Intelsat would be in “close and active dialogue” with them. Neither NCTA nor the NAB were rushing to embrace the proposal. Both declined to comment on the story at press time.

Vince Roberts, former chief technology officer of Disney/ABC Television 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 said. “Because programmers need a reliable, solid partner they can trust, they’ve traditionally turned to established satellite providers [such as Intelsat] as the solution for delivery to [multichannel video programming distributors] 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 added that 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.”

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.