FCC chairman to satellite industry: Shut Up

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s July 14 Spectrum Frontiers decision to make spectrum above 24 gigahertz available to future 5G terrestrial networks will be a subject of debate for years as 5G’s exact contours become visible.

It is only to be expected that this latest battle over radio frequency be the subject of differing opinions between terrestrial and satellite networks. Unlike the ongoing debate about terrestrial use of C-band spectrum, where many satellite networks are in service, the 24-GHz spectrum has not been universally viewed as a safe haven for satellites.

Simply put, satellite networks are not viewed as having priority over terrestrial in this spectrum. That they settled there before anyone else did does not in itself confer protected legal status.

Satellite companies nonetheless argue that, with FCC approval, they have invested in Ka-band systems on the understanding that any new entrants into the band would need to assure they could operate without interference.

Whether the satellite presence in the band should be given legal weight, and if so how much, is a subject of argument. It’s one reason why white-shoe law firms were clustered around the FCC rulemaking process. That too was to be expected.

What was not expected was the behavior of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler after the decision.

Apparently still smarting from a defeat he — and the U.S. delegation — suffered at the hands of the satellite sector during last year’s World Radiocommunication Conference, Wheeler’s FCC advised satellite companies that they should say nothing about the 5G ruling. And if they felt compelled to say something, the statements should not be critical, according to the FCC message that two members of the U.S. Satellite Industry Association confirmed, almost word for word, in separate interviews.

The FCC declined to discuss what happened here and did not offer some alternative explanation for what looks like bureaucratic overreach to say the least.

Wheeler has been an occasionally eloquent spokesman for why the United States should lead the world in the deployment of 5G networks. By virtue of his position, Wheeler has multiple opportunities to repeat his March warning to the satellite industry that “it is far more practical to get on the train than to be run over by it.”

That language is rough enough as it is. Adding a veiled threat that anyone publicly criticizing the 5G ruling would incur the wrath of the FCC chairman is beyond the pale.

It’s easy to ridicule the milquetoast statements coming from some satellite industry officials since the ruling. But no company wants to run afoul of its regulatory agency, especially if that agency is run by someone suspected of holding a grudge.

Market forces may be a welcome corrective here. Many of the satellite companies involved in the Spectrum Frontiers debate are publicly traded. Their regulatory obligations are to the FCC, but their fiduciary obligations are to their shareholders, not to Chairman Wheeler.

In the coming months, these companies will be addressing investors. Assuming Wheeler’s warning does not constitute an informal gag order that trumps the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s rules about disclosure of market risks, these chief executives should openly discuss the possible consequences of the 5G ruling.

The regulatory grandfathering of licenses for existing Earth stations, the agreement by the FCC to take a fresh look at the interference issue in the future, presumably once universally accepted interference studies are conducted — the FCC decision might turn out to be not so bad for satellite operators.

Wheeler’s be-nice-or-be-quiet message was certainly bad for the FCC.