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5G in the US: Will Satellite and Mobile Industries Finally Work in Unison?

The U.S. is going 5G. One of the world’s most lucrative and biggest markets for 5G services is putting down the building blocks to create a super-connected society. Satellite players are proposing radial spectrum sharing solutions to speed up this deployment. Is this good for the industry?

The rollout of 5G in North America is happening at a good pace. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made a series of significant announcements this year, as it looks to get the 5G revolution up and running in the United States.

It is a pivotal time for the satellite industry as it looks to maximize its revenue opportunities through C-band spectrum and 5G. Intelsat has made proactive moves, firstly getting together with Intel and then with SES and Eutelsat to get backing for proposals that will see new solutions come to the fore. Intelsat made huge headlines in the satellite industry proposing to expand the use of the 3700-4200 Megahertz spectrum from satellite services to terrestrial mobile services.

Intelsat Chief Operating Officer (CEO) Stephen Spengler tells Via Satellite that Intelsat’s proactive approach represented a significant breakthrough. “We think our proposal is a breakthrough, creative, and win-win proposal that is a market-based solution that protects the quality and the reliability and certainty of the services that we provide to customers in North America, in particularly for the TV programmers and broadcasters,” he says. “At the same time, it accelerates the development of 5G in the United States, which is a national public policy priority. As a company, we believe very strongly in 5G and what 5G will mean for our sector in general. We recognize the importance of spectrum in these types of services for the future.”

Getting the backing of SES and Eutelsat also adds weight to Intelsat’s proposals. Spengler says having SES onboard is important since between Intelsat and SES, the two operators represent 90 percent or more of U.S. C-band services. “We are very pleased we have Eutelsat onboard because they have some services in the U.S. as well. They recognized the importance of being together on this and to participate in a way that could be very positive for customers and protect the business over the long-term. Having everyone together is important. The key is our ability to manage and control the process and keep our customers’ interest in mind and make sure that those services are protected and over the long term,” he adds.

Despite criticism from others, Spengler believes Intelsat’s approach is the right one, and in fact, safeguards satellite interests going forward. “The key here is that our proactive approach is an alternative to all the other proposals that have been made to the FCC to date,” he says. “We are the only proposal that protects incumbent users of the band and that is very important. That is why it has been featured prominently in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), and we think there is a significance to that. The FCC is very anxious to free-up 5G spectrum, but they realize the criticality of C-band to delivering the very important TV services across the U.S. Our proposal addresses both needs. We feel very strongly that if we did not propose a solution to the FCC, our customers’ services would be at considerable risk had we allowed the Notice of Inquiry (NOI) to move in the direction of spectrum sharing, which is what was clearly contemplated by the NOI.”

Spengler says it is important that one studies the specific situation in the U.S. to understand the circumstances Intelsat was faced with a year ago and the risks its customers faced at that point in time. He points to the potential for significant harm into their business, Intelsat’s business, and stakeholders across North America. “It is important to keep that in mind, and important to understand the trend and the movement here towards a sharing of our spectrum with fixed wireless and mobile wireless that would be detrimental. I can’t speak to why they have taken particular positions they have, but I would emphasize what was happening here in the U.S. a year ago, and what has been the priority here, not only at the FCC but the AirWaves Act and MobileNow Acts that were circulating in the U.S. Congress,” he says. “So, what was different here? The U.S. does not have the mid-band spectrum available that other markets do around the world. The U.S. has not allocated as much of this mid-band spectrum for 5G as other countries have around the world, and it does not have the 3.4-3.7 GHz available for 5G.”

I ask Carlos Placido, an analyst at NSR, whether Intelsat’s actions have been a stroke of genius or a moment of madness. He gives an interesting response in saying that “Intelsat has certainly succeeded in bringing in other major satellite players to share same vision and goals. We would not use terms as ‘genius’ or ‘madness’ but perhaps define the move as a determined, bold one, and with a great deal of pragmatism. One can wonder if such move could have been shortsighted in the sense that proposal prioritizes short-to-medium term income over the long-term value of spectrum but we have to remember that markets evolve and, ultimately, spectrum falls in the hands of those markets and players where it is most valuable.”

Role of Satellite

What is clear is that the next few years will be pivotal for satellite in the United States, as we move very quickly into this 5G era. But, what role can it play in the future broadband landscape of the U.S.? The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) Vice President of Legal and Industry Jill Canfield says satellite broadband is a service that some of its members have used from time to time to reach consumers that could not be reached through terrestrial wired or wireless means. She describes it as a tool in the toolkit. But, she adds that in NTCA’s members’ experiences, it has been generally seen as less robust, reliable, or affordable than other platforms —meaning that when consumers have a choice, they tend to opt for fixed wireline broadband, or at least fixed wireless or mobile services. “You can see this in adoption patterns. Even in the FCC’s Connect America Fund proceeding, some satellite providers were arguing for lower broadband adoption rates as benchmarks for performance of their networks, effectively acknowledging that consumer interest in satellite broadband is limited,” she says.

She says the reasons why satellite faces adoption challenges are relatively clear. While Canfield believes satellite can be a useful tool in the broadband toolkit, she says it doesn’t deliver the capability for the price that other methods of broadband service delivery do. “In papers published in 2013 and 2017, the Vantage Point engineering firm highlighted the limitations of satellite broadband in terms of capacity needed to handle significant applications such as distance learning, telehealth, and video conferencing,” she says. “Beyond speed and capacity concerns, latency limitations undermine the use of broadband platforms for real-time, two-way communications, including but not limited to voice conversations. While some of this may improve over time as more satellites are put into service, we’ve heard for years the promise that the next launch will be the one to solve everything — until it doesn’t.”

Canfield says satellite will continue to be a helpful resource for those that can’t otherwise be reached, but is adamant that it is not a platform for building a long-term policy to achieve true universal service where rural and urban consumers alike have access to robust and affordable broadband services. She says small and rural providers are excited about the promise of mid-band spectrum, but are also realistic about its constraints. “One of our roles as their representative is to ensure that the industry as a whole and the regulators are cognizant of the financial and operational realities of bringing service to the entire country–urban and rural. We also seek to ensure that the rules adopted for the distribution of mid-band spectrum afford small and rural operators the opportunity to obtain the spectrum,” she adds.

Placido is optimistic. He says that in the past, C-band was demanded by both video and data applications because of its higher availability characteristics than Ku-band. He says advancements in ground network technology and move towards newer network architectures — such as High Throughput Satellite (HTS) — have drastically changed this, and the U.S. is a leading case on how such migration to new spectrum bands, enabled by advancements in ground technology, has created new markets.

Despite the potential loss of spectrum, he is optimistic about the overall prospects for the industry. He adds, “As we know, both Ku- and Ka- frequency bands are moving toward a new level of uses and services driven by Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) players as well, so the industry as a whole is changing rapidly. I frankly think that the industry is in the midst of a transformation perhaps not seen since the arrival of Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite communications decades ago, so it is reasonable to expect anxiety, winners and losers, ups and downs — but I am overall optimistic.”

Smart Cities, Smart Lives in a 5G World

What is in little doubt that is we are moving into a new era of communications in the United States as people, things, and objects become super-connected. DigiCity, Smart City Tech and Policy Founder Chelsea Collier says that the availability of spectrum is a critical aspect to the race for 5G, and mid-band plays a particularly vital role. She says there are three types of spectrum: low-, mid-, and high-band. Low-band relays broad coverage through traditional macro-cell towers and traditionally supports a smaller number of users. High-band, in contrast, provides much higher capacity coverage that supports many users. “In-between those is what’s known as mid-band — which is the glue that will hold 5G together, enabling the ability to carry high-capacity services over larger distances. A very relevant and real example is a physical therapist that can work remotely and in near real-time with a patient in an entirely different state without any connection or latency issues. This will be possible if adequate amounts of spectrum and mid-band in particular are opened up for commercial use. So, the FCC’s recent movement on mid-band is very promising for U.S. 5G efforts,” she says.

Collier says that there is a way for all entities to coexist and ensure 5G is delivered quickly and affordably to all Americans across the country. She believes there will always be growing pains when mapping out a new level of connectivity, particularly one like 5G where much of its infrastructure story is still being written. “I’d like to think that in the longer term we could see entirely new opportunities for satellite take shape and strengthen American innovation,” she adds.

She believes satellite is an important option for those in the U.S. without access to traditional fiber or mobile broadband. “These areas can include geographically challenged areas (such as mountainous or remote regions) where laying fiber is not a viable option. Because these areas are usually sparsely populated, it is not expected that they will participate in or excel in smart city technology. Satellite has historically been known to be an expensive and unpredictable option and used only when there is no other reliable option,” she adds.

Future of C-band in the US

Placido says the future for C-band in the U.S. will also be largely modulated by how much of the 500 Mhz spectrum is shared with mobile network operators — but it is natural to expect that if only 100 Mhz of spectrum is shared, and transition works smoothly, mobile network operators will eventually want to use more. “With the converged market moving toward an anytime, anywhere mobile content-heavy environment, there are no limits in terms of how much spectrum the mobile sector will need or want. It might work best for the U.S. to release only the amount of spectrum suggested by satellite operators so that the transition can more easily happen, bringing a success story that could then drive the market to consider an expansion of such approach, if this would make sense to both satellite and mobile stakeholders in North America,” he adds.

For Intelsat, Spengler is still a big believer in the U.S. market. Intelsat is developing a lot of capacity in space, and is already providing it to customers today. It is refreshing its North American fleet, which largely provides C-band services for cable distribution, and has announced its capital investment plan to do so. “We have already put one of those C-band satellites in the factory. We are building Galaxy 30. We have several more programs that are coming along and we will continue to invest in those satellites. We have talked about our focus on next-generation HTS. We think our future fleet will feature software-defined satellites that are more flexible, with faster deployed payloads. There is, perhaps, a lull in the industry right now. Maybe there is some excess capacity in places that need to be addressed, but overall there will be continued investment — at least from Intelsat — for HTS and satellites for our media customers,” he says.

Spengler believes the U.S. market is still a vibrant one for C-band. Spengler says C-band is still the preferred way of distributing TV content in North America because of the efficiency and high quality of service it delivers. He says it is critical for TV broadcasters and programmers to deliver services this way. “While we may make available some of the spectrum available for 5G, the rest of the spectrum will be heavily utilized well into the future. We don’t see that going away. The C-band services we provide in the U.S. also provide rural connectivity, government services, tele-education and other services across rural America. In Ku-band, there is demand and growth in a couple of areas,” he adds.

Influence of US Elsewhere

One of the worries about what is happening in the United States, is that it could encourage or promote other spectrum sharing initiatives worldwide. Spengler tries to allay some of those fears. “We are united in protecting C-band globally,” he says. “We are probably the largest operator of C-band on a global basis. C-band is important to us in many countries that we serve. We fully recognize how C-band is being used all around the world, not just for media, but for telecoms services, data services, government services. It is important in many markets around the world. We believe this is not a solution that can be easily transferred to other countries around the world.”

But having said that, he says every regulator will do what is in the best interests of their country and their citizens. “Would they consider an approach like this? Well, maybe, but I think it all depends on the nature of that economy and the needs of the citizens of that country to determine what is the best approach to finding spectrum for 5G,” he adds.

Placido thinks that this U.S. initiative could influence other regulators. “The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is perceived worldwide as a serious and rigorous regulator so, given this and the size of the U.S. economy, other regulators worldwide will certainly take a close look and perhaps consider or explore a similar, if not equal, approach. But not only this, note that the satellite industry is a global one and Intelsat and SES are the C-band leaders on a global scale making such precedent even stronger,” he says. VS