Houston, We Have a Problem: Satellite Alliance Fractures Over 5G Spectrum Sale Profits

Cracks are starting to appear in an alliance of satellite companies that are hoping to sell 5G spectrum to wireless network operators like Verizon and AT&T. The reason? Money, of course.

Specifically, Eutelsat's chief executive said this week there is no agreement among members of the C-Band Alliance over whether they should share some of the profits from a sale of C-Band spectrum with the US government. Eutelsat and fellow satellite companies Intelsat, SES and Telesat comprise the C-Band Alliance, which is offering to sell part of the C-Band for 5G.

"What I can tell you is that this voluntary contribution to the US Treasury is not part of the scope of the CBA," Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer said during the Paris-based company's earnings conference call last week, according to a SpaceNews report. "It needs to be discussed and aligned within all the members of the CBA, meaning the four of us, and for the moment there is no alignment on that."

Belmer's position appears to fly directly against statements made by a C-Band Alliance executive during recent Congressional hearings. "If the FCC approves the CBA's proposed auction, CBA's member companies have committed to make a significant voluntary contribution to the US Treasury," CBA's Peter Pitsch told US lawmakers last month.

CBA officials declined to comment today on Belmer's statements.

At issue is the money -- potentially as much as $60 billion -- that satellite companies stand to gain if the FCC approves their plan to sell C-Band spectrum for 5G. Under the CBA's plan, satellite companies like Eutelsat would relinquish 200MHz of the 500MHz located between 3.7GHz to 4.2GHz in the C-Band, and would sell that spectrum to 5G providers like AT&T and Verizon in a private auction. Such spectrum is considered ideal for 5G transmissions. The satellite companies currently use the spectrum to distribute TV to American households, but they don't need all of it.

However, critics of the CBA's plan have balked at the prospect of foreign satellite companies profiting from a private sale of US spectrum to US companies.

In order to counter those concerns, some members of the CBA have said they'll leave a sizable tip in the US treasury if the FCC approves the CBA's spectrum plan. "We're willing to make a contribution to the US Treasury as part of a transaction," Steve Spengler, Intelsat's CEO, said last week during his company's earnings conference call with investors, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. "We won't let something easily addressable stand in the way of adopting our proposal."

Now, though, Eutelsat's waffling on the topic appears to have created cracks in the CBA's armor. That's likely music to the ears of AT&T, T-Mobile and others that are making alternative proposals to the FCC. Indeed, there are now a total of five different proposals for how to reallocate the C-Band for 5G: One from the CBA; one from T-Mobile; one from AT&T; one from a teaming among Charter, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and ACA Connects; and one from public-interest group Public Knowledge. The FCC is currently soliciting comments on the topic and is expected to make a decision later this year.

The analysts at Wall Street firm New Street Research wrote late last month that "the prospect for the CBA members keeping all the money was low." The firm argued that the CBA's new offering for a "voluntary contribution" to the US government would likely help garner additional support for the CBA.

But, with dissension in the ranks, the CBA's efforts could now lose whatever momentum they had.

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

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