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The Impact of 5G on Satellite Communications

On July 25, 2018, Spain joined the list of countries who have completed auctioning the RF spectrum to companies interested in deploying 5G services. And as expected, some of that spectrum was in the C-band satellite frequency range. (Note: international C-band satellite frequencies start lower than those used in the United States; the lower end of the international C-band frequency band is instead allocated to federal use instead of satellite use here in the United States.)

With more countries announcing either completed C-band spectrum auctions or plans to hold an auction in the next couple of years, the U.S. is trying to select and standardize the frequencies that can be used to compete in the worldwide race to deploy 5G. And in case you haven’t heard, the “prime real estate” that is being eyed for 5G deployment is currently allocated to C-band (3700–4200 MHz in the U.S.) satellite downlinks.

For broadcasters who have historically used satellite to receive content from syndicated networks and satellite news-gathering (“SNG”) trucks, the world is quickly changing around them. As discussed in a prior article, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission has formally issued an NPRM exploring whether and how to clear radio spectrum that is currently used for C-band downlinks. The NPRM comes in response to Congress’ MOBILE NOW act that directs the FCC to find 500 MHz of spectrum for 5G broadband data use to ensure the U.S.’s continued technical prominence in the world.

Industry-Developed Proposal

Thus far, the C-band to 5G reallocation proposal that seems to have the most traction with the FCC is Intelsat’s. To be fair, Intelsat’s proposal to the FCC seems on its face to be counter-productive and harmful to the end users (downlinks) of C-band satellite services. Their proposal – now joined by SES and Eutelsat, but opposed in part by Telesat – offers to voluntarily relinquish some of the C-band spectrum they provide to TV networks, radio networks, private business customers, the military, and others. This idea runs counter to the mentality held by most downlink users: full-arc, full-band coverage is critical due to the flexibility and variety of services that might be needed on short notice.

Intelsat asserts that their business goal, however, is not to cut off any existing customers; indeed, they propose to maintain the same level of throughput and utility in spite of a reduced capacity. Through the possible launch of numerous new smaller satellites, newer compression techniques (migrating customers from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 or even HEVC) and/or other means, Intelsat’s aim is to preserve their satellite customers’ ability to deliver all their content without any loss of functionality.

Intelsat’s proposed “Consortium” would negotiate with 5G companies to clear out all satellite transmissions and downlink users from a large portion of the C-band spectrum and dedicate it for 5G use. The Consortium would also be responsible for coordinating with all downlink sites and users, tallying their costs, and reimbursing them for most or all costs that they incur as part of the move to clear some of the C-band spectrum.

In the proposal, the revenue that the U.S. government and the Consortium’s operators would realize by relinquishing (effectively “selling” or “leasing”) their spectrum to the 5G companies would provide the financial wherewithal to mitigate any potential losses by downlink users or other current C-band users. Supposedly, the proceeds of the sale/auction would be adequate to cover both capital costs from the conversion/migration and any higher operational costs such as higher cost for the smaller supply of remaining C-band spectrum.

Alternatives to C-Band Satellite

Facing the pressure of trying to keep up with other countries, the FCC’s NPRM, and Intelsat’s proposal, a fair question to ask is “How much would the [partial] loss – or increased cost – of C-band actually affect broadcasters and other users?”

Look at any current trade magazine for radio or television, and it is inescapable that the majority of ads are from manufacturers of equipment that use IP in tandem with – or even instead of – legacy analog or even digital transmission paths. TV stations everywhere have been enjoying the LiveU bonded cellular modems that attach to news cameras; now it’s possible to go just about anywhere in a city with good cellular coverage and instantly set up a remote live broadcast without having to set up a satellite link or an RF Marti link back to the studio. One broadcaster tells of facing the choice of spending $100,000 to $200,000 to update and refurbish one of their older SNG trucks; they instead used a fraction of that and purchased a number of new field cameras equipped with LiveU backpacks, thereby equipping multiple news crews with better widespread live capabilities than a single SNG truck could ever provide.

Already, at least one of the largest national radio networks is using IP as their primary means of backhauling their signal to their owned-and-operated radio station transmitter sites, with Ku-band satellite as backup to dual Internet-delivered streams.

Another syndicated national radio network uses dual internet-delivered streams as their primary backhaul of their signal to a satellite uplink provider who then puts it up on satellite for C-band delivery to their affiliates (no irony there, right?).

Some of the largest cable television companies leverage their extensive nationwide fiber networksto distribute content (some of which is downlinked from C-band) from a few super-headend locations to many individual headends across the U.S., thus avoiding the headache of maintaining lots of C-band dishes at every head-end.

Microspace, a satellite teleport operator that handles a lot of broadcast content, has for years been building out and expanding their CDN-type services over the internet, aggregating content and distributing it without any of the content ever touching satellite.

And secure or not, more and more radio stations are using Barix point-to-point products to deliver their audio from the studio to the transmitter, and Barix also offers other products for point-to-multipoint distribution.

Living in the Past – or the Future?

In light of the widespread and rapid advancement of IP-enabled transmission paths and equipment along with the rapid growth of the internet for all sorts of data delivery, is it therefore fair to ask the current satellite users whether they’ll be able – and when they’ll be willing – to move forward into the 21st century and stop relying on a service first authorized in the 1970s? It is a tough (and perhaps a hot-button) question, because C-band is arguably still the most reliable and cost-effective means of broadcasting content to an unlimited number of downlink locations.

Yet I cannot help but think back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when digital satellite receivers and computer automation were making serious inroads into broadcasting, while some stations still desperately clung onto their endless-loop tape cart machines triggered by not-so-subaudible tones. Could a station stay on the air and maintain the cart machines without upgrading to a computer? Sure, but in retrospect, doesn’t that seem like a pretty short-sighted view?

Are we at the point in IP’s advancement where history will show that relying solely on C-band for distribution to a limited number of sites is akin to hanging onto an old cart machine instead of using an automation system? Is not this the same as a newspaper company clinging to a paper-only mentality when its competitors expanded their service to deliver news via websites, social media, smartphone apps, and push notifications?

If so, it is easy to wonder how we ended up at this crossroads and why the decisions seem so difficult to make. Could it be that some broadcasters are fearful of moving to IP-based technologies out of ignorance of how “I.T.” works, or how to safely and successfully integrate IP into a legacy broadcast plant and path? There certainly is no shortage of network-savvy folks out there looking for work, but it is still not terribly easy to find fresh young faces of new hires who are savvy both in broadcast engineering and information technology (and interested in working for the paltry salaries sometimes offered to them, but that’s another story that may be changing).

Planning for a Business Change

It has been said many different times in many different ways, and it is something that some broadcasters and C-band users need to grasp:

If you form a business plan that depends on a specific type of current technology, you will eventually go out of business. Technology will change and advance, and if you are not prepared to adapt to it and adopt it, you will get left behind when your competition moves forward and you are still clinging to obsolete technology.

Instead, you should have a mission statement of what you are trying to do, and as new technology comes along you should carefully and quickly evaluate it to see if and how you can adopt it to fulfill your mission statement. Use whatever technology exists to reach your customers and fulfill your mission statement, and you’ll succeed in business.

That simple idea is one that applies to just about all areas of business, but especially so in the area of communications. The world is changing around us: Are we prepared to succeed or doomed to obsolescence?

Satellite communications is definitely changing, but it is not just because the FCC wants to take away some of the spectrum for 5G. It is changing because technology is advancing and changing the demand for SatCom in light of competitive technology and services. The real question facing us is whether we will embrace the changes, or try to resist them. As then-Chairman Tom Wheeler told the Satellite Leadership Dinner in 2016 about the need for 5G-related changes in the satellite industry:

“It is far more practical to get on the train than to be run over by it.”

Because of the FCC’s recent NPRM and Order, 5G’s growth and spectrum demands, and the satellite industry’s home-grown proposal to migrate C-band satellite frequencies to enable the “national priority” of 5G, we satellite downlink users have arrived (like it or not) at a definitive fork in the technical road, and we’re going to have to make a choice.

This (almost-certain) change coming to satellite communications is a perfect case example highlighting the critical need to stay informed and abreast of new technology. Like it or not, technical innovation and (perhaps unfortunately) politics affect your business, and if you want your business to succeed and thrive your company must pay attention, invest in training and innovation, and be aware of and involved with regulations that will affect it.

Years from now, how will you answer this question?

“Did the end of satellite communications as we knew it actually matter?”

TV Technology

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