ViaSat, Intelsat, OneWeb cite access to spectrum as big concern

Asked about the major factors affecting investment in next-generation satellite technology, several leading satellite players said access to spectrum is the No. 1 issue.

Executives from ViaSat, Intelsat and OneWeb testified Wednesday during a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing titled “The Commercial Satellite Industry: What’s Up and What’s on the Horizon,” with U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., serving as chairman. SpaceX, which has proposed a constellation consisting of thousands of satellites, was also represented.

The spectrum issue is notable given the intense competition for spectrum among the terrestrial wireless and satellite industries. The wireless industry wants more spectrum for 5G and the satellite industry, once a struggling market littered with bankruptcies, is seeing a renaissance of sorts. Some 11 different satellite proposals are sitting before the FCC; OneWeb’s application for a constellation of 720 satellites was approved in June.

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During the hearing, ViaSat founder and CEO Mark Dankberg said no communications provider can achieve the level of cost effectiveness, performance and competition they all want without spectrum. But ViaSat has also been a big proponent of spectrum sharing, and that came out in his testimony.

“I think the real issue here is not dedicating spectrum only to satellite at the detriment” of some other technology. “It’s really working on sharing because there’s a finite amount of spectrum,” he said.

“Spectrum certainty, spectrum certainty, spectrum certainty and repeat that so we know it,” said OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler. “We should not play with spectrum. You should not play with people’s foundations. If you went to Verizon and said ‘we’re thinking about taking back the 700 MHz, the 1.9, maybe’ … it would just halt investment overnight. Don’t play with spectrum. This stuff that we’re doing takes seven years to build and tens of billions of dollars to do it at the scale we’re talking about.”

Patricia Cooper, vice president of Satellite Government Affairs at SpaceX, said the FCC has taken a terrific first step to review and update the rules for the kinds of satellite constellations that are being proposed, and they rightfully put the onus for sharing spectrum on the operators to negotiate and coordinate. If they can’t come to agreement, the FCC will designate and split the bands, and no one wants that outcome. The best outcome will be between smart systems that are incentivized to innovate and coordinate, and that’s true internationally as well, she said.

Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler said that U.S. media companies depend on C-band spectrum for program distribution, but terrestrial wireless is also eyeing that spectrum for 5G. Recognizing that, Intelsat, along with Intel, proposed a framework for managing the C-band spectrum in the U.S. market that would enable wireless and other service providers to use it for 5G while protecting satellite interests.

Another related area: unlicensed spectrum. The business model changes dramatically when unlicensed spectrum is made available. In Africa, ViaSat needs to go through cellular operators to provide service, but the cell equipment costs thousands of dollars. In Mexico, it’s able to go directly with its own satellites and put in a Wi-Fi hotspot for $1,000, so seeing regulations to support those kinds of models would be very helpful, Dankberg said.

It’s widely believed that not all of the proposed satellite constellations before the FCC will come to fruition. There are engineering, manufacturing and other challenges, of course. As more satellites are launched, the potential for collisions rises, and OneWeb’s Wyler stressed that a more formal process needs to be created to prevent catastrophe in space.

The last significant U.S. regulation on space debris, the Outer Space Act, was adopted in 1967, he said. This is an area where the U.S. can take a leadership position and drive standards for stewardship worldwide, he said, noting that NASA is conducting a study on large constellations due later this year, and at a minimum, that can inform such standards.

“If there’s an accident in space, you will see a halt to investment,” Wyler said. Unless the U.S. takes a leading position on this and other countries work with the U.S. to make sure satellites stay in their own “lane,” so to speak, there could be big problems because if satellites collide, “the whole thing’s gone.”