At today’s FCC Commission meeting, the Commission began its proceeding “to spur mobile broadband investment in MSS bands”, which will take the form of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and a companion Notice of Inquiry (NOI). The NPRM and NOI have now been published along with a press release and accompanying statements from all five of the Commissioners.
The NPRM is focused on two issues: First, it proposes to add co-primary fixed and mobile allocations to the 2 GHz band. Second, it proposes to expand existing secondary market policies and rules to address transactions involving the use of MSS bands for terrestrial services. However, given that the Commission notes that the Globalstar-Open Range lease was already evaluated under this standard, this second issue is more of a streamlining matter than a substantive change in policy.
The NOI “requests comment on further steps the Commission can take to increase the value, utilization, innovation, and investment in MSS spectrum. It builds upon the proposals in the NPRM and addresses, in part, the recommendations of the National Broadband Plan for increasing terrestrial deployment in the MSS bands. The NOI inquires about ways to create opportunities for more expansive and efficient use of the 2 GHz band for stand-alone terrestrial uses. It also asks, if the value of the spectrum increases, what actions the Commission should take to further the overall public interest.
The NOI further requests comment on other ways to promote innovation and investment throughout all three of the MSS bands while also ensuring market-wide mobile satellite capability to serve important needs like disaster response and recovery efforts, rural access for consumers and businesses across America, and various government uses.”
Most of the NOI is focused on the 2GHz band, as I suggested last month, and suggests that either incentive auctions or a voluntary relinquishment of part of the spectrum would be means of providing appropriate compensation for the step up in value for the remaining spectrum. Of course, if part of the spectrum was relinquished, and the license for the remaining spectrum was still based on the MSS rules, it would quite possibly be necessary to continue to operate an MSS satellite. Such an outcome would almost certainly require a merger of DBSD and TerreStar (and disposal of two of their three satellites – 2 in-orbit and 1 ground spare), in order to reduce their satellite operating costs.
What the NOI doesn’t do is make specific proposals about relaxing the ATC rules in the Big LEO and L-bands, although it asks whether there are “any other actions that the Commission could take that would increase terrestrial use of the MSS bands”. To me, the tenor of the NPRM and NOI suggests that the FCC feels it has given ground to Harbinger (in approving the SkyTerra transaction and ATC modifications) and Globalstar (with what will presumably be a near term approval of its ATC waiver requests, for which the deadline is now August 2). Now the FCC needs to sort out the 2GHz band and it appears to be adopting a somewhat harder line than some might have hoped.
In his statement, Commissioner Copps highlights his belief that “charging fees for the ancillary terrestrial use in the MSS bands could provide incentives to ensure that the spectrum resource is used more efficiently and intensively”. However, whether this position will be shared more widely by the other Commissioners is still to be seen.
This must be a disappointment to those who had hoped for a relaxation of the ATC gating requirements without any significant givebacks in exchange. In particular, it may be hard for the FCC to agree to such a relaxation if a hard line is taken over incentive auctions or other compensation for the “step-up in value” in the 2GHz band.
With this proceeding going forward at the same time as MSS-ATC proponents are trying to secure partners and further investment (and in some cases are in bankruptcy or on the verge of it), it is going to be very interesting to see how the regulatory and financing activities affect one another over the next few months.