Intelsat, Intel propose way for mobile industry to use C-band for 5G

Intelsat HQ (Intelsat)
Intelsat's HQ administrative office in McLean, Virginia. (Intelsat)

Intelsat and Intel are proposing something that will be of interest to mobile industry stakeholders: access to new midband spectrum to help accelerate the introduction of 5G services. But getting all stakeholders on board already looks to be a challenge.

Intelsat and Intel submitted their proposal (PDF) to the FCC on Oct. 2, the deadline for initial comments in the commission’s inquiry into the 3700-4200 MHz, or 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, spectrum band, among others. The FCC solicited comments on midband spectrum as it decides how best to use various spectrum bands.

In short, Intelsat and Intel are urging the FCC to allow co-primary terrestrial mobile operations in the 3700-4200 MHz band through commercial agreements between terrestrial mobile players and primarily affected Fixed-Satellite Service operators. The satellite operators would work cooperatively to identify areas of the country where they could undertake the “complicated and costly” process of clearing portions of the C-band for terrestrial use in defined areas.

Such spectrum clearing will occur at significant cost, the proposal notes, including lost opportunities, to incumbent satellite operators in the identified frequencies and geographic areas.

The proposal does not put a dollar amount on the costs but says with “proper market incentives, spectrum in the 3700-4200 MHz band can begin to be available for flexible terrestrial use in various geographic areas within 1-3 years” of a commission Report and Order.

Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler explained that the challenge has been that "we as an industry, have not seen an approach to co-frequency sharing that is feasible. We have been concerned on behalf of our business and our customers that we needed to make sure that a wise approach was taken.”

Customers in the C-band today include all the top content brands that are regularly viewed on TV, and Intelsat provides distribution services to those media companies and ultimately tens of millions of consumers of TV programming. The company wants to protect those customers in a way that assures quality and reliability, Spengler told FierceWirelessTech.

“It’s a creative approach” and market-specific, meaning that Intelsat and other satellite operators will be responsible for managing the spectrum and taking the necessary actions to clear it on a technical basis in major cities to make it available for 5G.

“To do that we have to make significant expenditures in facilities and relocation of services and potentially some satellite redesign work to achieve that, but we believe we can do that if we have this kind of clarity of approach and do this effort collaboratively with the satellite industry and the wireless industry. We think now is the time” to take a more creative and market-based approach, he said.

Intel’s interest is in the 5G ecosystem; it has a vested interest in seeing 5G deployments expand and grow. 5G will be the enabler for a lot of new applications and an untold number of new devices out there, which in turn taps into Intel’s business.

Getting the other satellite operators on board may be the linchpin. Spengler said they’ve had conversations in the satellite and wireless industries on these topics. “This is just the first step in the process and our expectation is, as people understand our proposal better, we think there will be others that will be joining in support in time.”

The Satellite Industry Association didn’t immediately have a comment on the Intelsat/Intel proposal.

The other big distributor of C-band capacity in the U.S., SES, said it’s studying the proposal but it is clearly looking out for existing users in the C-band.

“As a leading satellite operator we see it as our duty to monitor closely any initiative to change the current framework and the impact this would have on us and on the ecosystem,” said SES spokesman Markus Payer. “We are therefore analyzing carefully proposals from the Intel/Intelsat consortium and others and need to understand the details, implications and consequences of these plans. Our overriding concern is to be able to continue to fulfill and protect our own and our customers’ current and future needs.”

SES and others have invested billions of dollars in C-band capacity on board its satellites, he said, noting that just now, in early October, SES—together with Echostar and on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral—is launching another C-band satellite, SES-11, "underlining our consistent engagement and investment in C-band.”

The Intelsat/Intel filing says that while Intelsat and Intel disagree over certain aspects of enabling terrestrial mobile operations in the 3700-4200 MHz band, they agree their 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’s Notice of Inquiry.

Spengler also mentioned that the proposal is specific to the U.S., where a number of unique aspects make it feasible as opposed to other markets. “We’re anxious to start the conversations” and see how things come together in the coming months, he said.