5G to satellites: All your spectrum are belong to us

C-band spectrum technically starts at 3.7 GHz and goes up to 8 GHz. Of this, the band from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz is what the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has harmonised for 5G use worldwide. However, mobile operators are even eyeing the lower C-band, from 3.2 to 3.5 GHz. India’s regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has proposed reserving 3.3 to 4.2 GHz as the primary band for early 5G introductions. A chunk of it, about 200 megahertz (3400-3600 MHz), is today being used for fixed satellite service for broadcasters. These will now be moved to another band to make way for 5G. In a meeting convened earlier this year by the Department of Telecom (DoT), the chairman of the Wireless Planning Coordination (WPC) wing assured the broadcasters and satellite operators that they wouldn’t be adversely affected.

Now with the FCC decision, which many see as a disruptive move in more ways than one, a frequency block as big as 500 MHz is being offered for commercial 5G use in the US. Finally, satellite operators and mobile operators will talk to each other even though broadcasters have known for a while that newer services are coming for their spectrum band. Not just the US, more than half dozen countries are seriously considering vacating spectrum in C-band for 5G cellular uses.

The Transition Phase

The debate in the US will rage around what all mobile operators will pay for in the transition and how satellite operators will share the booty. In India, the big question arises if it’ll finally consider the Department of Space (DoS) easing its hold on satellite spectrum and letting the Department of Telecom (DoT) allocate it. Will the silent turf war between the two departments come to an end? About time. Spectrum licensing in India is crying out for reform. It’s too complex with onerous clauses, distorted (across bands), and non-transparent when it comes to tracking spectrum usage in real time.

Fist-fights will ensue. Knives will be drawn. And satellite communication may never be the same. In the US, global satellite operator Intelsat and chipmaker Intel initiated the discussion with the FCC. It has since become a chorus, with many satellite operators joining the reallocation plan.

“It’s a fact that two competing situations have emerged for this frequency band. In the wake of the FCC decision, national administrators will have to keep their [spectrum] users’ and consumers’ interest in mind,” says the India chief of an international satellite operator, requesting not to be named. “But look at how this decision has come—it is suo motu initiated by Intelsat, a company with $15 billion debt on its books. They are being opportunistic, but it’s going to disrupt the entire ecosystem.”

Maybe, in the long run, it’ll work out, but right now it looks crazy and chaotic.

“Generally, whatever decisions the FCC takes, and whatever tech gets developed or gets precedence, it gets adopted in other parts of the world sooner or later. It’ll come to India also, and we have to be prepared,” says PK Garg, former wireless advisor to the DoT and ex-member Radio Regulations Board of the ITU.

All of this at a time when the government is ‘pushing’ for 5G.

Do telcos need more spectrum?

Nearly 300 MHz of spectrum in the 3.3 to 3.6 GHz band has been identified for 5G spectrum auction. The fixed satellite service operators in this band have mostly surrendered, or are in the process of surrendering that chunk of spectrum for cellular use.

This allocation has been done under the National Frequency Allocation Plan of 2011, which is under review even as you read this. “The government wants to push 5G; the satellite industry doesn’t want to be penalised, and 5G cellular industry has not quantified how much spectrum it requires and in what time frame. So everything is very dynamic right now,” says Garg.

That also whips up a perfect storm to address the C-band repurposing, certainly a new dimension in 5G planning.

To put it simply, 5G is a spectrum guzzler. Projections for 5G networks state the spectrum requirement at many times higher than 2G, 3G, and 4G networks combined. One of the reasons is that 3G or 4G required spectrum width of 5-10 megahertz. In 5G, contiguous bands are required, and telecom experts consider blocks of 200 megahertz and above in width as ideal, so as to allow networks to carry more traffic per user. That is, fibre-like capacity for wireless users.


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