US attempt to grab mid-band spectrum for 5G gets messy

The US telecoms regulator wants satellite companies to hand over 300 MHz of C-band spectrum, but the question of how compensation remains unresolved.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently made a rambling speech about how vital it is to US strategic interests that it lead the world in 5G. Apparently critical to this is a chunk of mid-band spectrum currently owned by a few satellite companies, so he wants to compel them to make it available to operators.

In return he’s going to get the operators to give the satellite companies up to $5 billion to cover the cost of vacating 300 MHz from 3.7-4 GHz and a further $9.7 billion to compensate them for the lost asset so long as they hand it over sharpish.

This is where things get complicated. On one hand it’s distinctly possible that the satellite companies will decide that’s not a fair valuation of their precious spectrum and thus hold out for more, with even the threat of bankruptcy apparently on the table. On the other hand there are people who thing that price is too high and in anyone’s going to extort US operators it should be the US state. And presumably the operators themselves would rather not get rinsed yet again.

“The imminent issuance of the draft order reflects the tireless efforts of many over the past several years to ensure that this critical spectrum comes to market safely, quickly, and efficiently,” said a statement issued by The C-Band Alliance, which represents the interests of Intelsat, SES and Telesat in this matter. “Today’s comments by Chairman Pai are a significant development in this important proceeding. We look forward to reviewing the draft order, once issued, to place Chairman Pai’s comments in full context.”

The danger for the C-Band Alliance is that the current US administration increasingly views 5G as a matter of national security and of strategic geopolitical significance. If Kennedy’s bleat is anything to go by, the US state is warming to the idea of unilaterally appropriating private property in the name of kicking 5G ass. 5G is important, but so are property rights and legal due process. Something’s got to give.

Germany frees up the whole of C-Band for 5G and the GSMA approves, sort of

The German government has decided to make the entire 3.4-3.8 GHz band available for 5G use, which is a good idea.

For 5G to do its thing, it needs big chunks of continuous spectrum to ‘fatten the pipe’. Piecemeal auctions of 3.4-3.8 GHz spectrum (otherwise known as C-Band) such as we had in the UK earlier this year, are not as useful as offering up the whole lot in one go. The eventual outcome may end up being the same, but the whole process is a lot more complicated.

This decision has been met with approval by the mobile industry trade association, the GSMA. “The C-Band is the most vital frequency band for 5G,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “Germany is demonstrating 5G leadership in the timely release of this vital spectrum, but risks undercutting its 5G future with unnecessary obligations. Spectrum is a limited resource and it must be used and managed as efficiently as possible to ensure a 5G future that will benefit all.”

Among the GSMA’s regulatory gripes are proposed coverage obligations for 3.6 GHz spectrum, which it says disregard the laws of physics. Since the time of Isaac Newton this had been frowned on by polite society and the GSMA has chosen to use this emotive concept to point out what short range these high frequencies have.

They do seem to have a point here. 5G is all about capacity and surely coverage obligations can be left to earlier generations in the short term and 5G over lower frequencies in the long term. As characterized by the GSMA this stipulation seems to be gratuitous, counter-productive and a classic example of regulation for the hell of it.

Other than that there are some inevitable whinges about roaming obligations and high reserve prices for the auction. In the latter case we have sympathy for the GSMA position as any attempt by the German government to push up the price of spectrum is a blatant cash grab and an indirect tax on mobile subscribers.