The record $81 billion raised by the FCC's C-band auction has eased tensions between SES and Intelsat. But the aviation industry has warned of potential troubles 'leading to multiple fatalities.'

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

January 21, 2021

6 Min Read
C-band bidding ends, but quarrels continue

The FCC's auction of C-band spectrum licenses for 5G officially ended earlier this month with a record $81 billion in total gross proceeds.

The agency hasn't yet announced the winners of the auction, but the financial analysts at Raymond James last week predicted that Verizon will account for around $30 billion of that total, followed by AT&T ($20 billion), Comcast/Charter ($15 billion), T-Mobile ($11 billion) and Dish Network ($2 billion).

However, the C-band saga is not over yet. The incumbent users of the band must still move their operations off the portion involved in the auction. And more importantly, regulators and others may still need to address concerns that 5G operations in the C-band could wreak havoc across the nation's aviation operations.

In fact, fears of interference between 5G in the C-band and aircraft operations is so acute that US military officials are reportedly looking into whether they will need to update billions of dollars worth of altimeters currently installed on Pentagon airplanes, helicopters and drones.

Attracting opponents

The debate over C-band interference is noteworthy considering the auction appears to have had a magnanimous impact on two of the biggest users of the spectrum. Executives from SES and Intelsat – European satellite companies that currently transmit TV and radio content through C-band spectrum across the US – recently conducted a joint meeting with an FCC official to discuss their efforts to free up the band for 5G.

"The accelerated relocation is on schedule, and SES and Intelsat expect to satisfy their clearing obligations by the Commission's aggressive transition deadlines," the companies wrote in a recent filing with the FCC. "SES and Intelsat are buying American, creating jobs and investing billions of dollars in small and large businesses throughout the United States to make this critical midband spectrum available for 5G by later this year."

The filing is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, SES and Intelsat are locked in a heated lawsuit over access to incentive relocation payments from the C-band auction. The companies had initially teamed up under the auspices of the C-band Alliance to auction their spectrum directly to 5G providers, but the FCC's chairman nixed that idea early last year, opting instead to have the FCC run the auction itself. Shortly after that decision, Intelsat filed for bankruptcy and SES filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming it was due $1.8 billion from Intelsat under their C-band Alliance agreements.

The companies' joint call with the FCC last week indicates they're moving forward with their plan to vacate the band, despite their ongoing legal squabbles.

It's also worth noting that the companies met with an official for FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is widely expected to replace outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai by President Biden.

'Severe risk' to aviation

As SES and Intelsat unite in support of 5G in the C-band, the same does not appear to be true for aviation companies. "The planned deployment for 5G in the 3.7-3.98GHz band poses a severe risk to aviation operations," wrote the RTCA, a not-for-profit aviation association fronted by longtime executives from behemoths like Boeing and Honeywell Aerospace.

In an October report, RTCA argued that 5G operations in a portion of the C-band would interfere with altimeters in the nearby 4.2-4.4GHz band. The association warned of possible troubles "leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations." After all, altimeters help pilots determine their altitude, which is important information when they're flying in the dark, for example.

Indeed, the study was concerning enough that 12 aviation trade groups, including the Aerospace Industries Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, called on the FCC to halt the C-band auction on December 7 – the day before the auction was scheduled to start.

"We continue to have no reason to believe that 5G operations in the C-band will cause harmful interference to radio altimeters," FCC Spokesman Will Wiquist told Defense News, which reported in late December that Pentagon officials were also looking at how 5G in the C-band might impact US military operations.

Interestingly, Defense News reported this week that Pentagon officials have decided to drop attempts to halt the C-band auction and now are instead looking at what they might have to do to upgrade their equipment to prevent interference from commercial 5G operations. The publication reported that officials aren't considering swapping out equipment but instead creating geographic locations where 5G operations should be curtailed. They are also considering upgrades to equipment to add filters that will block interference.

Inter-agency acrimony

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 5G industry wasn't very pleased with the aviation industry's last-minute attempt to scuttle what is now the FCC's biggest-ever spectrum auction.

"The request [to halt the auction], submitted a day before the auction launches and more than three years after the Commission first began exploring the band for wireless use, relies on the filing parties' unsound and unsupported technical findings and should be summarily rejected," wrote the CTIA, the trade association for the US wireless industry, in an FCC filing the day before the start of the auction.

This isn't the first time an FCC auction of 5G spectrum has caused concerns of interference in government operations. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA warned that US weather forecasting capabilities would be severely impacted by 5G in the 24GHz band.

Such public, inter-agency skirmishes are sparking concerns that the US government needs to get its act together.

"Over the past four years, significant conflicts between federal agencies have caused costly delays in making needed spectrum available for commercial use while also creating severe uncertainty for both federal and non-federal users," wrote California Democrat Doris Matsui, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to President Biden earlier this month in a clear reference to the Trump administration's chaotic management style. "These frequent, public conflicts encouraged a combative rather than collaborative posture among federal agencies and often necessitated congressional intervention. This spectrum management approach is untenable."

Continued Matsui: "For the United States to remain a global leader in wireless communications technology, the federal government must be a driving force in spectrum policy. For that to occur, coordination, collaboration and consistency are necessary."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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