Intelsat and SES have been working for months to build support for a proposal that could ultimately let them cash in on the sale of mid-band spectrum for 5G. But their efforts appear to have hit a few roadblocks recently.
Specifically, several prominent lawmakers have spoken out against the notion of foreign-owned satellite companies (Intelsat and SES are both based in Luxembourg) making profits from the sale of US spectrum to US companies. Further, a number of big players in the space -- including Comcast and Cox Communications -- have taken a decidedly negative stance on the satellite companies' spectrum proposal. And the satellite companies' main cheerleader in Washington DC Preston Padden, has decided to step away from the issue to spend more time with his family in Colorado.
The bottom line, according to the Wall Street analysts at New Street Research, is that recent movements on the topic have made the situation more volatile, which "makes the outcome more uncertain."
Not surprisingly, investors appear to be getting cold feet about the whole thing. Shares in both Intelsat and SES have tumbled dramatically in recent days following these developments, particularly after a Bloomberg article cited some lawmakers' opposition to the satellite companies' plans.
"I think we have to ask ourselves: why should the FCC allow a group of foreign satellite providers to walk away with potentially tens of billions of dollars that could be used to solve our own country's broadband needs?" Rep. Mike Doyle, the Democratic chair of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said recently, according to Bloomberg.
Doyle was specifically referencing the C Band Alliance, formed last year by Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat to relinquish around 200MHz of the 500MHz C-Band for 5G. The CBA is currently working to convince regulators to sign off on its plans to clear out current C-Band users from a portion of the spectrum so that the association can then sell it to the likes of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.
And though lawmakers like Doyle don't have a direct say in how spectrum is allocated -- that falls to the FCC -- their opinions nonetheless matter, according to New Street.
"The FCC, by nature, is not indifferent to Congress," the firm wrote in a recent note to investors.
The apparent growth in opposition to the CBA's proposal could give fuel to opponents of the association, including primarily T-Mobile. In a counter-proposal to the CBA, T-Mobile has argued that the FCC should oversee an auction of C-Band spectrum through an incentive process similar to how the agency doled out 600MHz spectrum in 2017.
While not specifically siding with T-Mobile, a number of cable players including Comcast and Cox took issue with several different aspects of the CBA's plans.
"A transparent FCC auction is superior to the C-Band Alliance proposal, which runs counter to the public interest and should be rejected," Comcast wrote in a recent filing with the FCC.
The matter isn't necessarily as simple as deciding how best to allocate spectrum. For example, Intelsat's CEO recently argued that T-Mobile's proposal is actually an attempt by the company to buy time while it works to reach a conclusion in its merger proposal with Sprint. He explained that T-Mobile stands to gain a significant amount of mid-band spectrum through a merger with Sprint, and therefore it wants to delay the release of other mid-band spectrum like the C-Band until the merger process is complete.
However, the New Street analysts wrote that Verizon and AT&T may ultimately be the final arbiters on the debate, considering they're the companies that will likely spend the most in any C-Band sale.
"Not only are the two companies the most influential with this commission, they, more than any other entities, also have the political authority to speak about how America can win the 5G race," the New Street analysts wrote. "Therefore, if they are united on how this proceeding should be resolved, the odds shift heavily to that outcome."
Although Verizon and AT&T initially signaled interest in the CBA's proposal, they have remained silent recently amid revised proposals from T-Mobile and others.
At stake is potentially billions of dollars worth of spectrum -- estimates range from $11 billion to as much as $40 billion. The C-Band sits between 3.7GHz and 4.2GHz and has been described as toeing the ideal line between coverage and capacity for 5G. Moreover, that general type of spectrum is being used around the world for nascent 5G services, thus making it even more valuable to companies looking to leverage global economics of scale for both network equipment and devices.