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Protection of incumbent broadcasters’ C-band spectrum from poaching – Essential in the public interest

It would be generally agreed that broadcasting is a powerful utility for the public good. Millions of Indians use it for entertainment, education, religious pastimes etc. It therefore deserves to be accorded a commensurate level of importance as well as protection against any dilution or infringement of its basic resources, one of the most critical being the C-band spectrum which is from 3300 -4200 Mhz, which has traditionally always been with broadcasters-not just in India but also internationally.

Radio spectrum is known to be a limited resource. A balanced spectrum policy which is both futuristic and sustainable as well as harmonious with the due, legitimate protection of rights of the incumbent, is extremely important. This aspect is particularly amplified where broadcasting is involved which is also used by several agencies, – governmental, non-governmental and commercial, for public welfare and for spreading the key messages of socio-economic development.

India, with the dual pressure of a very large as well as highly dispersed population, needs increased focus on broadcasting for inclusive socio-economic development. To arrive at an optimal spectrum policy that is fair both to incumbent broadcast users and also take care of the futuristic requirements of new services which are desirous of using the same spectrum band, one needs to first take cognizance of the recommendations of international regulatory and standards bodies, availability of spectrum in the country, possibility of co-existence of new services with incumbent services and the need to align India’s position on particular spectrum band with the global trends and best practices.

The C-band spectrum (radio frequencies lying within the band 3.3-4.2 GHz and in particular within the extended C-band (3.67-4.2 Ghz) is currently a subject of intense debate when it comes to competing use of spectrum by two different but essential segments viz. Satellite and Broadcasting Operators who are the incumbents , pitted with the new ‘kids on the block’ – 5G players. Different strategies of proposing ‘mixed use ‘ of spectrum are being proposed in this band to accommodate both segments of players, albeit with significant adverse implications from the compromised status.

The extended C-band i.e. between 3.67 to 4.2 GHz, has traditionally been, and is still being, utilized by Broadcasters and MSOs for providing Cable & Satellite (C&S) services, in India and all over the world. This is not only as per the norms of the global apex body ITU but also in conformance with our own National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP) for more than two decades.

If the rest of the ‘upper C-band ‘were to be left for the broadcasters as it were today, there would be no difficulty for anyone and both services could flourish and grow healthily. This is because there is a separation or “guard-band” of more than 30 MHz between the two services (5G in the lower C-band and the Broadcast services in the upper part of the C-band) to preclude possibilities of interference. However, it must be pointed out that the recent version of NFAP 2022 holds the guard band as much lesser than desired -as only 10 Mhz. Needless to say, any interference between frequencies of different technologies (Satellite broadcasting and terrestrial in this case) would directly harm the Quality of Service to the customers of the incumbent satellite broadcasting service and lead to an unacceptable situation of conflict, thereby violating the fundamental rationale of radio regulations which is to provide full protection to the incumbents , while encouraging new services and also fall foul of providing interference free spectrum to the new licensees.

It is important to note that TRAI has also recommended the use of the 3.7-3.8 Ghz (100Mhz) band for direct allocation of spectrum for CNPNs (Captive Non-Public or Private Networks ), which are essentially indoor applications of the band and prohibit use of the same band for public 5G use. TRAI also mandates that while assigning the spectrum band to the Private Networks, it would behove of the new player to ensure that there is no interference with the incumbent users of this band i.e. the broadcasters,

International practice on C-band spectrum for 5G is depicted below:

United States 3.55-3.7 GHz 650
Canada 3.7-4.2 GHz 650
European Union 3.4-3.8 GHz 400
United Kingdom 3.4-3.8 GHZ 400
Germany 3.4-3.8 GHz 400
France 3.46-3.8 GHz 340
Italy 3.6-3.8 GHz 200
China 3.3-3.6 GHz 300
Korea 3.4-3.7GHz 300
Japan 3.6-4.2 GHz 600
Australia 3.4-3.7 GHz 300

Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, with tropical climates similar to India offer interesting cases of allocation. In HKK, only 200 MHz allocated in the 3.4 – 3.6 GHz band and even this divided up amongst 4 operators but two of these operators also separately got 40 MHz each in 4.8 GHz. In SGP, only two 5G licences awarded – one to Singtel and the other to a joint venture of its MNO rivals. Each given 100 Mhz in 3.5 GHz. In Malaysia, only a single entity, which is a consortium of multiple licences, is being awarded 100 MHz of 3.5 GHz.

Clearly, consideration of the above shows many countries using 300 MHz or less for 5G services in the C-band.

The case of USA is a bit different. Through discussion, dialogue and incentives, FCC persuaded several incumbent satellite operators (broadcasters)to vacate their C-band spectrum for a huge compensation of nearly 10 billion USD. Even with this, some broadcasters have not agreed and some litigation still continues on this matter.

It must be appreciated that the Cable and Satellite Sector (C&S) provides communication and entertainment services to 207 million TV households including both rural and urban areas. The sector consists of almost 900 registered TV channels which are all transmitted through C-band satellites and simultaneously received by 1701 registered distribution platform operators (DPOs) spread all over India. The sector provides direct and indirect employment to nearly 2 million people. The per capita media consumption through television grew at the rate of 6.7 percent CAGR from 2018 to 2020 and at even a much faster rate during the pandemic, when it was one of the principal means for communications & entertainment for the masses when they were locked down inside their homes for a protracted length of time.

In view of the socio-economic importance of the broadcasting sector, the operations in the extended C-band should be fully protected by preventing any interference in this part of the band from any new services. The importance of the C-band for an all-weather transmission requirement of broadcasting services in a tropical environment like India is much more than in non-tropical environments like US or Europe.

5G is also undoubtedly extremely important for economic growth and development and we need to ensure that adequate spectrum resources are made available for the concerned players. Policymakers could note that 5G players have been allotted sufficient spectrum in a number of bands viz. sub-Ghz band, mid –band and the millimetre wave bands . ITU (WRC-19) has identified (as shown below) a huge chunk of 12250 Mhz or 12.25 Ghz spectrum for use of 5G.

1. Total Spectrum made available for 5G in India = 3.77 Ghz or 3770 Mhz

Spectrum Bands already auctioned to 5G players in India Quantum of Spectrum
600 Mhz ( 612-703 Mhz ) 80 Mhz
700 Mhz ( 708-798 Mhz 70 Mhz
3.3Ghz ( 3300-3670Mhz) 370Mhz
26Ghz ( 24.25-27.5Ghz ) 3250Mhz
Total Spectrum Auctioned 3770Mhz ( 3.77 Ghz )

2. New Bands assigned for 5G by WRC-19= 12.25Ghz or 12, 250Mhz

New Spectrum Bands allocated by WRC-19 Quantum of Spectrum
26Ghz ( 24.25-27.5 Ghz ) 3.25Ghz
47Ghz ( 47.2-48.2Ghz ) 1Ghz
40Ghz ( 40.5-43.5Ghz ) 3Ghz
66Ghz ( 66-71Ghz ) 5Ghz
Total Spectrum identified 12.25Ghz

3. Total Spectrum Identified for 5G = 3.77+12.25=16.02 Ghz or 16020Mhz
This includes spectrum across all bands including the mid-bands, thereby making for a strong argument that the extended C-band (3.67-4.2 Ghz) need not be reduced for the important broadcasting sector. Apart from having the legitimate incumbency rights, it should be appreciated that television broadcasters also only have about 0.5 Ghz i.e. a very small fraction of less than 5% of the total spectrum that 5G players have.

The ongoing moves to claim use of extended C-band for 5G, have therefore caused much concern and dismay in the C&S sector. It is genuinely apprehended that the inevitable Out of Band Emissions (OBE) from the 5G transmitters, would interfere with the incumbent satellite broadcasting signals in the 3.67 to 4.2 Ghz band.

A sustainable spectrum policy resolution should be found, and is definitely possible, based on ITU led Radio Regulations which calls for full protection to the incumbent users while accommodating the new ones. The new policy should ensure correct balancing of aspects of equity and respect for rights of existing players with the need for progress through adoption of new technologies. There need not be any disruptions or disturbance of existing legal occupants of the spectrum band and their customers.

If the Government goes through with its decision to auction the C-band spectrum used by broadcasting, experts reckon that it could cause a serious setback to the sector. In the recently concluded e-auction for the DD Freedish DTH platform, there was some unfortunate flip-flop and divide amongst the news broadcasters. It is hoped that similar confusion does not recur since that could harm this vibrant sector on the basis of wrong interpretation, in some quarters, of the 2G judgement by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. It should be noted that the apex court held, in its advisory jurisdiction in the Presidential Reference relating to the order in the 2G case that “Auction, as a method of disposal of natural resources, cannot be declared to be a Constitutional mandate under Art. 14 of the Constitution of India. “The Supreme Court further stated that “Auction may be the best way of maximising revenue, but revenue maximisation may not always be the best way to serve public good.” This applies with redoubled force to satellite spectrum, both for broadcasting and for communications.

Plato sagely advised that “Your silence gives consent.” Hence, responsible enterprises should not remain silent and passive or indifferent; instead, they are duty bound to use their collective voice to convince policy makers and build public opinion against the move since broadcasting is the most affordable and popular medium for millions of Indians and is the backbone of the vibrant and promising Indian Media & Entertainment industry.

Author is Hon. FIET (London) and President, Broadband India Forum. Research by Debashish Bhattacharya. Views are personal.

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