Satellite and terrestrial are positioning to battle for the limited amount of spectrum as demand for connectivity soars globally and regulatory decisions loom in 2023.
Spectrum battles are likely to come up with regulators as the arbiters at the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), said Jennifer Manner, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for Englewood, Colo.-based satellite operator EchoStar (NASDAQ:SATS), during a webinar presented Jan. 27 by global nonprofit satellite association GVF. “We’re watching to protect spectrum,” she added.
The quadrennial WRC, which the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union organizes, next meets from Nov. 20 to Dec. 15, 2023, in the United Arab Emirates, said David Meltzer, secretary general of GFV. The webinar featured speakers from technology giant Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and satellite companies Intelsat (OTC:INTEQ) and SES (EPA:SESG) as well as EchoStar.
“Spectrum wars” are often an issue as a market sector grabs frequencies without justifying the business case, Meltzer said. As a result, satellite companies must make the case with regulators for maximum allotment of spectrum.
During the 2019 WRC event, satellite almost lost 27.5-30 GHz in the Ka-band as regulators considered reassigning it, Manner said. In the U.S. in 2020, the FCC shifted C-band spectrum from satellite to terrestrial use ahead of mass deployment in 5G connectivity.
The importance of spectrum is underlined in Intelsat’s use of it for inflight connectivity (IFC) following the $400 million acquisition of commercial aviation business from IFC company Gogo (NASDAQ:GOGO) in 2020, said Mohaned Juwad, Intelsat director of spectrum policy. The company is accessing spectrum in international markets.
Spectrum is the “lifeblood” of Intelsat, he said, noting that the company operates 52 satellites. “Spectrum is the core asset, not satellites,” he added
Satellite, which is seen as a spectrum threat, sees opposition from terrestrial, especially for use in mobility, said Daniel Mah, vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at SES.
SES’ high-throughput satellites use Ka-band spectrum, including the SES-14 and-15 satellites in orbit, he added. The satellite operator might have had to modify its business strategy were this spectrum unavailable.
Spectrum sharing not ‘panacea’
While the sharing of spectrum is not a “panacea,” Mah said, it is sometimes necessary. Operators prefer exclusive access as they cannot fully deploy shared spectrum, such as the 28 MHz band currently being split among operators.
Satellite gives a boost to developing countries, Mah added. For instance, SES is providing 4G connectivity to Peru, the Congo, New Guinea and other countries it would be expensive to reach with terrestrial infrastructure, a fact likely to catch the ears of regulators.
The resilience of satellite connectivity is key factor that would convince regulators of its importance, EchoStar’s Manner said, citing the Jan. 15 volcano near the island of Tonga in the South Pacific. Satellite operators and service providers raced to restore critical communication after the disaster caused tsunamis to hit three different continents.