We are in a very exciting time in communications; the demand for broadband communication capabilities by consumers, industry and government is burgeoning because of the wide variety of innovative services being offered.
Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the consumer market where a demand for access to mobile data services is growing exponentially. This demand has led the wireless industry to call for increased access to exclusive spectrum even if it means severely curtailing the rights of other exciting communications technologies access to the same spectrum. A prime example of this is the terrestrial industries’ current efforts in the United States to obtain access to the 27.5-28.35 GHz band (the Ka-band) for 5G services, at the expense of the fixed satellite service industry and perhaps more importantly, broadband satellite consumers. This effort by the United States is surprising since at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva last fall there was a clear determination by the world not to study the Ka-band for 5G precisely because of existing and future satellite broadband use.
The 5G industry has targeted the Ka-band among many other thousands of MHz of spectrum it claims it needs to support its future needs.
Over 20 years ago there was recognition globally that access to spectrum was needed to support innovative fixed satellite broadband services in both the geostationary and non-geostationary orbit. Accordingly, the International Telecommunication Union through its World Radiocommunication Conferences allocated adequate spectrum for this purpose while keeping the ability of this same spectrum to be shared by both the fixed and mobile services. The United States was the lead sponsor internationally of this effort. While it took some time for the technology to develop, today there is extensive use of the Ka-band for satellite broadband services especially in those areas that are the most rural and hard to reach and where terrestrial infrastructure is unavailable. The growth of these services both in the United States and globally is staggering.
For example, today in North America alone Hughes Network Systems and ViaSat provide services to approximately 2 million consumers, and with the launch later this year of two new satellites by these providers, usage is expected to continue to grow dramatically. Similar usage is beginning to be seen worldwide and even greater growth is possible with the launch of new systems such as the non-geostationary orbit systems planned by OneWeb and SpaceX, and as GSO systems such as Inmarsat’s Global Express begin commercial operation.
The Ka-band for these systems support important gateway communications functions. Because of the technical characteristics of gateway earth stations and the current fixed and mobile services operating in the Ka-band, gateway earth stations have been able to co-exist with these services. This has been true even in the United States where FSS gateways are secondary to the fixed services. Accordingly, the U.S. industry alone has invested billions of dollars in satellite systems that rely on access to this spectrum to provide services to its customers.
5G technology is just beginning to be developed and the 5G industry has targeted the Ka-band among many other thousands of MHz of spectrum it claims it needs to support its future needs. As 5G technology has not yet been defined, it is very hard to determine the appropriate environment for sharing, but one thing is clear — the technology can be designed in a way that will allow co-primary services the ability to operate.
Despite these facts, certain terrestrial wireless interests, including Verizon Wireless, Intel and others, are advocating both domestically and internationally that 5G should be given primary access to the Ka-band. As the record in the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers proceeding shows, the terrestrial wireless advocates do not care that existing investments have been made in reliance on being able to access the Ka-band by the satellite broadband industry and that the service provided is critical to their customers who would be devoid of access to any broadband services. All that matters is that they have full access to these bands to develop their yet undefined services.
There is a balanced solution that will enable the most efficient use of the Ka-band and ensure that broadband consumers in both rural and urban areas have access to the broadband services they demand. In the recently filed comments in the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding it is clear that it is possible to come up with reasonable protection criteria to enable the continued full use of existing infrastructure with only a nominal impact on 5G services. This is because gateways are primarily located in non-urban areas and only need minimal protection distances. In the future, FSS gateways should continue to be allowed to be deployed in areas where they can demonstrate they can coordinate with deployed systems and protection afforded going forward. Accordingly, a flexible, well-balanced approach is possible in the Ka-band.
Jennifer A. Manner is vice president of regulatory affairs at EchoStar and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. Ms. Manner is currently serving as chair of the Satellite Industry Association. The views in this article are those of Ms. Manner and do not necessarily reflect the views of EchoStar, Georgetown or the Satellite Industry Association.
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