Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai. Credit: PBS Newshour

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on March 12 lavished praise on the satellite industry but did not suggest an opinion on the Intelsat-SES C-band-sharing proposal with terrestrial wireless operators.

And while he said closing the digital divide was his highest priority, he told satellite-broadband providers they would have to live with what they say are biases in the Connect America Fund Phase 2 (CAF-2) reverse auction of broadband-deployment subsidies.

“We’ve made satellite broadband providers eligible for [CAF-2], which will provide up to $2 billion over ten years to expand broadband deployment in rural America,” Ajit Pai said in a speech to the U.S. Satellite Industry Association (SIA). “To be sure, I understand that the satellite industry disagreed with some of the decisions that the FCC made in developing rules for the reverse auction. We are forging new ground with this first-of-its-kind auction, and in doing so we had to make some hard choices.”

Satellite broadband providers Hughes Network Systems and ViaSat Inc. have both said they intend to participate in CAF-2 in hopes of winning awards in areas where terrestrial players cannot compete economically, such as low-population-density rural regions.

But they said the FCC continues to give too much weight on factors, such as signal latency, that favor terrestrial providers but do not have real value for most consumers.

Pai said he wanted the satellite sector to be part of the process.

“I nonetheless hope that satellite companies will study this opportunity closely and choose to participate in the reverse auction. Remember that the application window opens a week from today and closes on March 30,” Pai said.

“And for those companies that have questions or need more information about how to participate, we’re holding a workshop this Wednesday on the auction application process.”

In his speech, Pai mentioned ViaSat’s newest-satellite, ViaSat-2, and the higher speeds it can offer customers. He said extending broadband to all Americans — estimates are that around 9 million U.S. homes do not have broadband access — was priority number one for the FCC.

“I’ve often said that in order to bring digital opportunity to all Americans, we need to use all of the tools in the toolbox,” he said. “Satellite broadband service is one of those tools. Next-generation satellites are bringing new competition to the broadband marketplace and new opportunities for rural Americans who have had no access to high-speed Internet access for far too long.”

Pai reiterated his support for approving SpaceX’s application for a license to operate a low-orbiting constellation of several thousand broadband satellites, and said previous approvals of OneWeb, Telesat and Space Norway proposals were made with the same goal in mind.

“These architectures promise fast, targeted Internet service. And we’re continuing to work through similar applications from other NGSO [non geostationary-orbit] operators,” he said. “Moreover, last September, the FCC updated the framework that will govern NGSO satellite systems. These rules better reflect current technology and offer more operational flexibility.

“We are committed to streamlining our regulatory processes and ensuring flexible rules that can adapt to new technologies, such as small satellites deployed at scale.”

The satellite sector has been concerned about the direction of the FCC in opening satellite-reserved spectrum the 5G terrestrial wireless operators. This is true in the 28-GHz band used for Ka-band broadband systems, and in the 3.7-4.2-GHz C-band spectrum now used by satellite operators to provide video services in the United States.

To head off a long-drawn-out process whose outcome is uncertain, Intelsat and SES are proposing to vacate certain sections of that spectrum on condition that the terrestrial operators reimburse the fleet operators for the cost of relocating, and the opportunity cost of reduced spectrum use:


The ball is now in the FCC’s court and Pay did not tip his hand on whether he approved of the Intelsat-SES proposal, which includes Intel as a backer.

“Going forward, the FCC will continue exploring the potential for new uses of mid-band spectrum, particularly the C band (3.7-4.2 GHz),” Pai said. “I’d like to thank satellite companies for coming to the table with innovative ideas that open the door to freeing up additional spectrum for terrestrial use. I appreciate your willingness to engage constructively about the band’s future and look forward to exploring these ideas with you in the months to come.”

For the higher frequencies, he said his agency had “preserved the 48.2-50.2 GHz and 40-42 3 GHz bands for satellite use. And we also provided some additional flexibility in our Earth station siting rules for the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands.”

For WRC-19, wants special regulatory consideration for short-lived satellites and constellations

The world’s telecom regulators are scheduled to meet in 2019 in the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19), which occurs every four years and organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The WRC-15 meeting ended with sharp differences between the FCC and the satellite sector, which helped organize opposition to several U.S.-backed proposals.

For WRC-19, Pai said he would propose “a regulatory framework for additional NGSO operations to support future constellations.” Among other FCC priorities for WRC-19, he said:

“We’re working to create additional opportunities for Earth Stations in Motion to provide broadband access for use cases that include in-flight and maritime operation. We’re studying the spectrum needs of short-duration or small satellites. We also look forward to supporting possible changes to the satellite publication, notification, and coordination procedures in an effort to facilitate the best use of the orbit.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly in October said U.S. frustration with the way the ITU operates and said U.S. authorities might even consider withdrawing from the organization:


Pai took a softer line, saying that the United States had nominated Doreen Bogdan-Martin as the ITU’s director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau. “I urge you to be active supporters of Doreen, using every opportunity to advance her candidacy and engage with governments and private sector colleagues around the world,” Pai said.