FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly seems increasingly won over by the C-Band Alliance’s argument. It’s unclear how close his views are to a consensus at the agency. Credit: C-Span

PARIS — U.S. Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly gave what sounded like a stamp of approval to a satellite industry proposal to sell off a portion of satellite-dedicated C-band spectrum to terrestrial wireless networks in a private auction.

O’Rielly doesn’t decide things at the FCC, and it is uncertain whether he was letting his own hopes get in the way of his assessment of where the satellite operators’ C-Band Alliance (CBA) stood at the agency.

Here are excerpts of his remarks, delivered March 26 at the Free State Foundation conference in Washington, D.C.

— The CBA proposal of Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat “is still in the lead” among the competing ideas for ceding a 200 MHz of the 3.7-4.2-GHz spectrum to 5G network operators.

O’Rielly made clear he didn’t think the U.S. Congress would be able to put assemble legislation on a competing spectrum-cession proposal anytime soon given the issue’s complexity.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s a heavy lift” for Congress, O’Rielly said.

— He doesn’t care about whether this results in a “windfall” for the satellite operators, so long as a deal gets done quickly and treats C-band broadcasters fairly.

O’Rielly pointed to six “fires” that the proposal needs to extinguish to reach a consensus on the deal: the broadcaster issue, cable industry concerns, the amount of spectrum to be freed up, the exact form the auction will take, and the size of each of the licenses won at auction.

“I would prefer that there weren’t six fires going, but it’s a lot of money and a lot of spectrum and it’s the prime band,” O’Rielly said.

He said broadcasters’ concern about being left with a lesser service after the auction “is solvable. It’s just a matter of whether they have been taken care of. I think that’s doable.”

The CBA’s two largest members, Intelsat and SES, have said they would launch a combined eight new C-band satellites and refit with filters thousands of antennas to assure signals in the remaining spectrum are not interfered with by the spectrum that is sold to 5G operators.

Any holdouts among current C-band licensees would be a problem

— Any holdouts among satellite operators that are currently C-band licensees “becomes incredibly problematic,” O’Rielly said. “It’s not just 10%, is a full-band, full arc [spectrum authorization], so it’s a much more complicated holdout issue. We do not have a history of withdrawing licenses against someone’s interest.”

— Asked whether the fact that the satellite operators will be making a killing by selling spectrum they don’t own is a concern of his, he said: “No.”

A related proposal would have the CBA return a percentage of their auction proceeds to the FCC as a token of their appreciation for the fact that they are auctioning off public spectrum.

O’Rielly dismissed this. “Look’ we don’t have authority to take 10% or whatever percent from the windfall side,” he said. “I don’t really appreciate those scenarios where there is some negotiated ‘Just Send the Money This Way.’”

O’Rielly was an early proponent of pushing the satellite operators to make more than 200 MHz of spectrum available. The fleet operators said with every new swath added to the mix, complexities multiply in providing incumbent broadcasters a similar level of service.

O’Rielly seems to have accepted that reasoning, up to a point.

“The question I pose, which is still outstanding, is what’s it going to take to do more. Four hundred MHz seems like a heavy lift. Cable and broadcasters want to be taken care of in C-band. They don’t want to move to Ku. I can see a harder lift to get above 300 MHz. After 300 MHz it gets really hard and I am still trying to figure out how hard it is between 200 and 300 MHz.”