FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly addresses 5G Americas’ Technology Briefing on October 5. He said U.S. frustration with the ITU, notably on 5G issues and including 28 GHz, may lead to calls for a withdrawal from the organization. Credit: 5G Americas

LOS ANGELES — Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, in remarks that likely will provide a tailwind to the Intelsat-Intel spectrum-sharing proposal, reasserted the FCC’s determination to open up C-band spectrum reserved for satellites to allow terrestrial 5G wireless applications.

O’Rielly also raised the threat of a U.S. withdrawal from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN affiliate that regulates global wireless radio spectrum and satellite orbital slots.

“The ITU needs a fundamental overhaul,” O’Rielly said in an address to a 5G Americas Technology Briefing. “Clearly, greater transparency and process reform are long overdue. But it’s more than that: The ITU is currently being used by authoritarian governments to push their myopic agendas to the detriment of other countries, including America, and technology advancement.  Structural reforms need to be enacted to ensure that the ITU remains technology neutral and focused on its core mission as opposed to engaging in mission creep, such as their activities to regulate the Internet.

Not-so-veiled threat to quit the ITU… 

“Failure to proceed along this path is likely to lead to calls for the U.S. to defund the ITU in whole or in part, which would likely fracture the organization and lead to its functional demise.  No freedom-minded individual should want this outcome because, if we are at least part of the organization, we have the chance to fight for the hearts and minds of the world community.

“I suggest that we demand a larger role and say in the ITU leadership.  It is ironic that we are the second-largest contributor of funds to the ITU, but only one Secretary General has come from the U.S. in 150 years and the last American sector head was approximately 25 years ago.  People from the U.S. should be within the upper echelons of ITU leadership.”

… while depending on ITU to assess NGSO frequency-interference compliance

Ironically, the FCC recently decided to allow the ITU to decide whether non-geostationary-orbit (NGSO) satellite constellations are abiding by frequency-interference rules to avoid causing problems for satellites in geostationary orbit.

The FCC’s Sept. 26 decision permits the many NGSO systems seeking an FCC operating license to self-certify that they are in compliance with interference-mitigation rules and have run the software simulations that prove this.

Operators of satellites in geostationary orbit, notably Ka-band consumer broadband providers ViaSat and Hughes Network Systems, were surprised by the FCC decision. ViaSat has said it would seek to appeal or modify the rule.

The FCC has been backing studies to open up Ka-band spectrum for 5G wireless, arguing that satellite and terrestrial networks can share the spectrum. The refusal of ITU governments in 2015 to permit such studies infuriated the U.S. delegation, and O’Rielly’s Oct. 5 remarks show that these feelings have not subsided with time.

A Charter Communications antenna in New York City. Credit: Jim Henderson

More immediately, the FCC wants to force satellite operators to share the 3.7-4.2-GHz section of C-band in the United States. It opened a Notice of Inquiry on the subject.

Satellite operators have been fighting against sharing proposals for a decade, saying the weak C-band signal emitted from satellites 36,000 kilometers over the equator would be overcome by any terrestrial wireless signal operating in the same frequencies in the same geographic area.

On Oct. 3, on the last day the FCC reserved for comments on its inquiry, satellite fleet operator Intelsat and Intel filed a surprise brief proposing that the terrestrial broadband and satellite interests negotiate a “market-based” solution to allow both to use the 3.7-4.2 GHz band:


Under their proposal, Intelsat — and other satellite operators licensed in the same geographic areas, mainly cities — would clear its portion of the C-band, or add protection for its installed antennas, to allow terrestrial 5G networks to use the frequencies.

The selected areas would be identified by both parties. The 5G operators would pay Intelsat for the use of the spectrum, giving heavily indebted Intelsat an extra incentive to conclude the deal.

Eutelsat: Intelsat-Intel proposal was a surprise

Fleet operator SES, the other dominant satellite C-band provider in the United States, reacted warily to the idea, saying the defense of C-band from terrestrial encroachment has long been company policy.

Paris-based Eutelsat, whose Eutelsat Americas division has a C-band presence in North America, was similarly doubtful.

“Intelsat’s announcement has taken everyone by surprise,” Eutelsat Chief Executive Rudolph Belmer said in an Oct. 5 statement. “There are potentially positive and negative consequences. We reserve judgement until we fully understand them.”

Multiple questions arise from the Intelsat-Intel proposal. The first: Does Intelsat need the approval of SES and other operators licensed to use the spectrum in a given geographic area before proceeding with its deal with terrestrial 5G?

Does Intelsat need SES, Eutelsat et al to agree to spectrum-sharing for it to work?

Several industry officials said that’s probably the case. Here is Intelsat’s response to the question, from Oct. 4:

“Realistically, this proposal would optimally be more fully explored with SES joining the Intelsat/Intel coalition.  As the users of the band, we are best positioned to work through the technical requirements. That is the benefit of a market-based solution.

“Of course, the other extreme is a situation where the FCC likes the idea and creates its own implementation where those regulated by the FCC are coerced to comply.  We certainly would not like to be in that position, which is why we are proactively bringing a market-based solution.  It truly is the best solution for all.  We invite interested parties, including the wireless operators and others interested in an expedient path to certainty, to join the Intelsat/Intel coalition,” Intelsat said.

One industry official said Intelsat does not have rights to the terrestrial use of C-band, meaning 5G operators would need to conclude separate arrangements, through auctions, for example.

Another official said the U.S. government has interests in this C-band spectrum and likely will weigh in on the Intelsat-Intel proposal.

O’Riellly already seems convinced of what an optimal outcome looks like.

“Commenters have highlighted the importance of 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, because the U.S. is at a disadvantage to other countries when it comes to licensed spectrum below 5 GHz.  Many commenters seem to agree that it is possible to share with incumbents or even repack or clear the band for flexible use, including mobile services.  Another group of entities has proposed a plan that would favor fixed operations in the band, but this is counter to flexible use policies and is not appropriate.

“I suggest that the Commission should start by ensuring that updated and complete information about incumbent operations is in the FCC databases.  This is the only means for the Commission to truly evaluate current use and protection mechanisms, to the extent they are needed.”

Satellite operators have said that most of the users of C-band in the United States are not registered with the FCC because there is no requirement to do so, making the FCC database an inaccurate reflection of real use.

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding
Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for SpaceIntelReport.com. He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes