02.09.19

Splitting the C-band baby

Posted in AT&T, Financials, Intelsat, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 2:02 pm by timfarrar

It’s now just over a year since I first wrote about the possibility of a “pioneering market-based transfer of [C-band] spectrum to higher value uses” which could allow satellite operators to sell part of the C-band to boost Verizon’s 5G network capacity. In that time, the process has moved forward significantly, with the FCC issuing an NPRM in July, to which comments and reply comments were received late last year.

Opposition from the cable companies has been growing, as they’ve become scared by the prospect of new wireless broadband competition, with Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T all admitting that they have no better plan than to use the huge amounts of capacity that their new 5G networks will create, to compete in the fixed broadband market.

But it was truly ironic to see New America and Google team up with the cable industry last week to claim that the plan put forward in the NPRM for a private market transaction represents “The Great Airwaves Robbery” because satellite operators rather than the Treasury will receive the proceeds. Not only are these very odd bedfellows, but Google has traditionally been on the side of freeing up more spectrum and encouraging broadband competition, rather than trying to block such an effort.

However, it now seems that if Google can’t get what it wants in the C-band (meaning essentially free access to the band on a shared basis), it will seek to derail the plan for a market-based approach. While one reason for Google to mount this effort is to prevent C-band from undermining interest in the CBRS band in which has invested a lot of time and resources, a cynic might also say that Google would prefer a “Political Spectrum” where the FCC would be able to insert policy provisions that suit Google, especially since an FCC-run auction wouldn’t take place until after the next Presidential election in November 2020.

That’s certainly been the case in the past, when Google persuaded (Republican) FCC Chair Kevin Martin to include Open Access provisions covering the upper C-block into the rules for the 700MHz auction in 2008. Of course, despite the fact that the Open Access conditions ultimately proved to have no effect on the wireless market, Google didn’t care that these provisions meant that the C-block spectrum sold (to Verizon) for less than half the price of the unrestricted paired A and B blocks, costing the Treasury something like $6B in auction proceeds.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the various sides of the C-band debate appear to want to capture all of the benefits for themselves, without looking for a compromise solution. This includes the satellite operators, where Preston Padden of the C-band Alliance (CBA) has claimed that there is “no alternative” to the CBA Plan, which gives all of the control and sale proceeds to the satellite operators. In fact there is a fairly simple compromise option, which follows the traditional FCC model of splitting the baby, so everyone gets something out of the process. That was followed back in 2003, when the initial approval of Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) flexibility for MSS operators was given in exchange for 30MHz of the 70MHz of 2GHz band MSS spectrum being reallocated to terrestrial services (this ultimately became the G block and H block spectrum).

So a relatively simple solution at this point would be to allow the satellite operators to sell the 180MHz of spectrum at the bottom of the C-band, and keep the proceeds (part of which would be used to pay for new satellites and filters to enable continuation of video delivery in the remaining 300MHz of spectrum), while the FCC conducted an overlay auction of terrestrial mobile licenses in the rest of the band (excluding a modest guardband of perhaps 50-100MHz below 4200MHz to preserve key services and protect aeronautical users in the 4200-4400MHz band). Purchasers of the overlay licenses (which would cost considerably less than the spectrum being sold by the CBA) would then be able to pay C-band earth station owners to move their earth stations away from major cities or migrate them to fiber, in order to clear the spectrum in high demand areas, with no additional compensation due to the satellite operators (since the satellite operators would already be receiving a windfall from the spectrum they sold).

All parties could then be compensated: the satellite operators would receive proceeds from selling 180MHz of spectrum (potentially worth $11B-$18B at $0.20-$0.30/MHzPOP), the Treasury would receive proceeds from the overlay auction (potentially worth $4B-$5B from selling 270MHz at $0.05/MHzPOP) and the earth station operators would receive compensation if they decided to migrate to fiber or relocate their earth stations to clear the overlay spectrum. And both the FCC and the wireless operators would be happy, with T-Mobile’s demand for 300MHz+ to be made available being met if they bought the overlay licenses and paid to clear the spectrum in the areas where they needed spectrum, while Verizon and AT&T could get the spectrum they need in the near term by agreeing a deal with the CBA. Even Google could acquire spectrum in the overlay auction, if they really did want to buy spectrum, rather than just prevent others from getting hold of it.

Of course the cable operators might not be happy with the additional competition for their broadband business, but they would also have the option to acquire spectrum in the overlay auction, and compete in the wireless market themselves, especially since they would have an easier time clearing their own earth stations out of the band. And if they didn’t want to do that, they could hold out for compensation from the holders of the overlay licenses.

Will the CTIA and the wireless operators now be prepared to push for such a compromise? Will the satellite operators accept that they can’t have it all? And will the cable operators and Google accept that blocking the reallocation of C-band spectrum to terrestrial is an unacceptable outcome? That depends on whether the FCC is willing to rule that none of the parties should get all of what they want, but everyone can get something.

1 Comment »

  1. markmoore said,

    February 10, 2019 at 7:30 pm

    I cannot for life of me understand why they need to rush this process and end-run a transparent auction process. Several reasons. Who in right mind would allow one carrier to have effectively the entire band for next decade (ie one buyer)? Why does this need to move rapidly? It will take 4 years to clear the spectrum and by then there will be chipsets ready for many bands. Why is c-band so special anyhow – that it deserves special treatment whereby spectrum we gave to foreign companies FREE will be enabled a windfall repurposing without material tax? It feels like a ‘get out of jail free’ card attempted by an alliance of overlevered satellite companies in secular decline. There is zero chance that this happens.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.