FCC’s latest spectrum move rewards satellite providers

The FCC is performing a balancing act between satisfying the needs of satellite and terrestrial radio operators.

Two satellite dish for cellular technology

The FCC’s latest spectrum policy announcement, which preserves 500MHz of the 12GHz band for satellite use while designating another 500MHz for terrestrial radios, is a recognition that satellite internet providers like Starlink are being heard, according to experts.

The commission’s latest notice of proposed rulemaking, posted May 18, reflects a more even-handed approach than has been adopted in the past. In carving up the airwaves for C-band usage, substantial amounts of spectrum were taken away from incumbent satellite users and handed off to terrestrial operators, most notably major telecom providers.

It’s also a resolution of the long-brewing disagreement between Dish Network and the satellite industry — the former company had sought to use the 12.2GHz to 12.7GHz range for fixed wireless connectivity, over objections from satellite providers.

“Starlink and OneWeb actually requested that the FCC not allow that terrestrial two-way communications on the same band they’re running satellite,” said Octavio Garcia, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. “Their claim was that there would be interference.”

Starlink in particular, now boasts 1.5 million customers and therefore carries more weight than other satellite stakeholders may have had in the past, noted analyst Bill Ray of Gartner Research. The company, backed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, offers residential and business coverage of much of the continental US, via a network of low-earth-orbit satellites, advertising between 25ms-50ms of latency for download speeds of between 20Mbps and 100Mbps.

It's also a potential business ISP, promising higher speeds —between 40 and 200Mbps — thanks to priority network access. It’s not alone in that area, either, with UK-based OneWeb positioning itself as a possible enterprise connectivity option.

“OneWeb’s pitching itself as a professional platform,” according to Ray. “It’s a lot more expensive than Starlink, and it only has 650 to 800 satellites, but it doesn’t need that many because it’s not providing the same kind of service — it provides SLAs and things like that.”

The idea, according to IDC research manager Pat Filkins, is to provide a broadband-like connectivity option for sites in rural areas or anywhere which might need pop-up Internet due to major weather events or large-scale terrestrial outages.

“[The FCC] tried to make everybody happy,” he said. “The terrestrial folks wanted that spectrum for 6G, since anywhere from 7 to 20[GHz] is a target.”

Will 6G face issues?

Spectrum scarcity has been an oft-cited issue for future network development. Auctions for 5G-relevant spectrum have brought in titanic sums for the FCC, demonstrating its value to network operators. It’s less clear whether this particular 500MHz of spectrum being parceled out to the satellite providers will be a net negative for the development of next-generation terrestrial networks, however.

“5G has demonstrated that the demand for bandwidth is not insatiable,” said Ray. “The idea that 6G will push up more and more demand is just not how it’s going to go — it’s going to be far more agile and isn’t just going to consume bandwidth forever.”

Furthermore, Ray added, particularly high frequencies for terrestrial networks — the 12GHz band in question here isn’t quite millimeter-wave, but it’s considerably higher than the frequencies widely used in existing networks — haven’t seen wide uptake.

“US millimeter-wave has been a terrible thing, and the rest of the world hasn’t even deployed it,” he said.

That fact, combined with the simultaneous designation of 500MHz for terrestrial use, suggests that the protection of some spectrum for satellite providers isn’t likely to materially impact the deployment of 6G networks, which are still far off.

“We anticipate 6G in 2028, 2029 or even 2030,” said Forrester’s Garcia. “Potentially this is a band that 6G could be targeting … [but] I don’t believe enterprise users should be concerned.”

Moreover, the protection of these frequencies for satellite use may make satellites a more convincing second option for enterprise customers, according to IDC’s Filkins.

“There’s definitely a business story there,” he said. “Satellites being less apt to be disrupted means their ability to grow the business is somewhat more protected.”

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