T-Mobile, C-Band Alliance trade punches in battle over midband spectrum

T-Mobile has been one of the most outspoken opponents to the CBA’s proposal. (FierceWireless)

While T-Mobile continues to poke holes in a controversial proposal by the C-Band Alliance (CBA) that would free up spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for 5G, the CBA is addressing technical points raised by AT&T, Ericsson, Comcast and NCTA—the Rural Broadband Association.

CBA’s attempt to address their concerns is worth noting given that one of the chief complaints during a Feb. 6 forum was the lack of transparency and answers from the group. Representatives from Charter Communications, the American Cable Association, Google and Citizens Against Government Waste participated in the panel that was hosted by the Wireless Future Project of the Open Technology Institute at New America.

T-Mobile has been one of the most outspoken opponents to the CBA’s proposal, saying as recently as Monday (PDF) that it’s a “self-serving attempt to strip the Commission of its statutory obligations,” and directs all financial gains to entities that not only don’t have the terrestrial rights they propose to sell but also didn’t initially pay for the spectrum.

The CBA insisted the satellite operators paid for their spectrum in FCC-approved secondary market transactions and have invested billions to provide services to U.S. customers. A lot is at stake: Broadcasters, programmers and cable operators use the C-Band every day as part of their video programming delivery systems that transmit television content to more than 100 million American households. NPR also uses it for radio broadcasts.

Last month, T-Mobile submitted a refined outline (PDF) for an incentive auction approach that the company said better incorporates all stakeholder interests and could provide the means to make up to 500 MHz of spectrum available in a market.

The CBA—comprised of foreign companies Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat Communications and Telesat—has been proposing to sell 200 MHz of C-band spectrum to wireless operators, saying it’s the fastest way to make this midband spectrum available for 5G. It argues that T-Mobile, which would acquire a boatload of 2.5 GHz spectrum if the merger with Sprint is approved, is using delay tactics to prevent rivals from obtaining midband spectrum for 5G. Cable companies also want to delay the availability of midband spectrum because it threatens their stranglehold on home broadband services, according to the CBA.

In its March 4 filing, the CBA said it disagrees with Ericsson’s characterization that -59 dBm is “too conservative,” and said AT&T’s assertion that the CBA’s proposed rules would require some form of Spectrum Access System is wrong. It also addressed Comcast’s concerns and said the primary objective of the C-Band proposal is to ensure the protection of C-Band services.

In reference to the NCTA’s points, the CBA said it’s already made a commitment to deploy more than 100,000 filters at earth stations. That, together with rules proposed by the CBA, will ensure that all fixed-satellite service (FSS) earth stations entitled to protection will be protected.

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According to the CBA, T-Mobile’s motivation is pretty clear: It wants to merge with Sprint and slow down the clearing process, as is evident by its proposal for an incentive auction to include up to 17,000 registered earth stations, which would only prolong the process.

The decision ultimately will be with the FCC, but several influential lawmakers have warned in recent weeks that they may step in if the FCC allows the type of private sale the satellite companies are proposing, according to Bloomberg. Meanwhile, others are suggesting that lawsuits are sure to ensue if the FCC were to go with the CBA plan.

The CBA's head of Advocacy and Government Relations, Preston Padden, announced Tuesday that he is stepping down from his position in order to spend more time with his family in Colorado. He has proposed a replacement for the position, which requires a full-time presence in Washington, D.C., and promised more to come on that front shortly. Meanwhile, he will continue to support the CBA as a consultant from his home base in Colorado. 

One of the big sticking points in the entire process is the voluntary involvement of the satellite players. If the satellite operators that are currently operating in the C-Band don’t cooperate together on their own initiative, nobody can force them to work together, said Markus Payer, vice president of Corporate Communications & PR at Luxembourg-based SES. “How else would it be possible?,” he told FierceWirelessTech. “The agreement of the satellite operators … is absolutely key and every other proposal loses that voluntary approach.”

The four satellite companies in the CBA span the 500 megahertz in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band. “This is not a market where you can just slice it,” he added. “All operators access the entire spectrum. That’s why you can only clear it when you have all operators on board.”