There’s still time to tame, not slay, the 5G dragon

The satellite telecommunications industry has been battling terrestrial wireless interests over spectrum rights for a decade now, alternating between never-give-an-inch aggressiveness and despair.

The apparently solid victory in C-band at the 2007 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-07) turned into Swiss cheese as individual nations opted to allow terrestrial networks into C-band inside their borders.

The C-band erosion is continuing, and it turns out that the loss of C-band at 3.4-3.6 GHz will not be a disaster for fixed-satellite services despite the call to arms at WRC-07 and WRC-15.

As the International Telecommunication Union’s Yvon Henri told the industry yet again earlier this month, satellite interests must demonstrate they are making full use of the spectrum they are protecting or expect it to be taken away. “Use it or lose it,” he said.

The same battle is being waged in higher frequencies — the Ka-, Q- and V-bands — as the world prepares for the still ill-defined 5G networks. While 5G’s contours are not clear, we do know they’re hungry.

Several national regulators have indicated they want the satellite interests to move aside. At WRC-15, as in 2007, the satellite industry beat back the challenge.

But these national regulators aren’t waiting for a global consensus to move forward. The United States, Britain, South Korea and Japan — lots of GDP in that group — are weighing allocations to assure the quick adoption of 5G.

It was only eight months ago that U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler told the satellite sector to climb aboard the 5G train or face being run over by it.

Those are fighting words, and satellite sector has been counting the days until the U.S. elections, which might result in a new FCC chief early next year.

But the problem is not just Wheeler. His table pounding might be unpleasant, but is he completely wrong? Is there not room for spectrum sharing?

A recent filing to the FCC by the Global VSAT Forum, a satellite industry representative, suggests that a change in strategy is on the way as the industry approaches WRC-19 and tries to put out the fires in individual nations in the meantime.

The  Global VSAT Forum told the FCC that in the higher-frequency bands — 24, 37-39, 57 and 50 GHz, — there may be ways to share use if, and only if, terrestrial operators agree to flexible technical measures including “opportunistic” use, meaning full-on at times and locations where satellite services are minimally present, and lower-power operations otherwise.

It’s a start. At the recent Asia-Pacific Satellite Communications Council’s  2016 conference in Kuala Lumpur, BBC Communications Regulations Specialist Cath Westcott said the WRC experience taught her that “you need to engage with the people that want your spectrum. You have to be able to provide clear evidence about why it’s important to you.”

The Asia-Pacific Satellite Communications Council polled its Kuala Lumpur audience about what it expected at future WRCs. A remarkably high percentage of polled attendees — this was a satellite conference after all — said it’s inevitable the satellite sector will lose more ground, including in Ka-band.

These people apparently think they’re already at the Alamo and facing certain defeat by their adversary’s overwhelming force. But unlike the Alamo, the frequency wars offer no immortality to those annihilated. If you’re defending spectrum and you think you’re at the Alamo, you should be in flat-out negotiation mode.