“OK,” you might say if you were a satellite operator. “We’ve lost this battle, but we can still win the war.”
The FCC and C-Band Alliance machinations have been the primary focus for the satellite industry for the best part of 3 years. The rationale for a major ‘win-win-win’ for the US-focused satellite sector is simple. Intelsat has an offer of $4.87 billion on the table, and SES almost $4 billion (less tax in the case of SES) for giving up their spectrum rights to an overall 300 MHz of C-band frequencies over the US. They will also be compensated for up to an overall $5 billion (and it could be more) for the ground-based restructuring and relocation of existing dishes and hardware at cable and IP head-ends.
As well as providing a wonderful portfolio of work for US technicians and engineers as they carry out the work, it also means a portfolio of orders for US satellite manufacturers. The original submissions to the FCC talked of around 8 new satellites would be needed to compensate for the ‘lost’ frequencies.
SES CEO Steve Collar has explained that SES is planning for new satellites to be placed in older – and less used – orbital locations to serve the US and to replace capacity given up to the FCC. “We have those slots. We will re-populate slots that we have consolidated over the past 15 years or so. The good news is that there are plenty of clients who still have dishes pointing to those old positions.”
These new smaller satellites will be C-band only and ordered promptly for speedy delivery into orbit, and certainly before the FCC’s key dates (now of December 2021 for the first 100 MHz of spectrum, and December 2023 for the final 180 MHz of frequencies).
New satellites ordered by satellite operators these days tend to be ultra-sophisticated craft with multiple frequency ranges (C, Ku and sometimes Ka-band) and state-of-the-art on-board digital switching, as well as multiple beams and spot beams to maximise the coverage and versatility of the craft and its orbital position.
These new C-band craft are very different beasts. As Collar explained: “These will be eligible expenses and eligible costs as part of the C-band replacement scheme. They will remain as C-band, and it isn’t our plan to add other frequencies simply because the time frame that we have to meet requires [the new satellites] to be simple, plain vanilla, C-band dedicated and standardised satellites that can launch quickly.”
Nevertheless, the move gives SES (and probably Intelsat) a brand-new C-band fleet over the US that should be good for the next 15-17 years. And paid for by the incoming 5G auction winners. There will be some initial Capital Expenditure but that will be refunded by the auction winners.
There are challenges ahead, not least the threat from the Small Satellite Operators (specifically Bermuda’s ABS, Argentina’s ARSAT and Spain’s Hispamar) who have said they will initiate legal action because they have been excluded from the FCC’s plans.
Brazil’s Embratel Star One qualifies for an FCC award (of $13.7 million) because of its Florida and the S.E corner coverage of the US with its satellite footprint.