Last week was not a good week for broadcasting.
In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that those who have been following the proposed 5G expansion into the Mid-band spectrum were completely floored by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s abrupt announcement about the C-band spectrum — and the broadcast community’s reaction to said announcement.
On Monday, November 18, Pai indicated that the FCC has decided to move forward with the C-Band Alliance’s (CBA) idea of auctioning off 280 MHz of the Mid-band frequency and giving it to broadband industry, without the assistance of the CBA.
Instead of having a private auction of the 280 MHz (as urged by the CBA) with funds raised going to the transition of all incumbents into the remaining 200 MHz of space, the Chair stated there will be a public auction of 280 MHz of C-band spectrum, with the monies going into the US Treasury.
Even more surprising? The repack and planned public auction has gained the support of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and eight major broadcast companies. This, in spite of no real plans announced as yet on how much of the funds raised in the repack will go to protecting the signal of C-band users in the remaining 200 MHz, and who will be in charge of distributing these funds.
The emerging plan would see satellite-delivered audio and video services currently operating on the C-band repacked into its upper end. The downsizing of audio and video content distribution from 500 to 200 MHz will involve more than just the relocation of the Mid-band frequency (3.7-4.2 GHz). FCC officials said the plan is based on a 20 MHz “guard band” that would serve as a barrier between broadcasters and the 5G services.
A Conditional “Thumbs Up”
Though the NAB and major broadcasters (which include CBS, Fox, Viacom, The Walt Disney Company, Univision, NBCUniversal, A&E Television Networks and Discovery) throw their support behind the FCC, their joint statement subtly holds the FCC accountable to the incumbents who have operated within this spectrum for over three decades.
In the letter, the NAB stated, “We appreciate Chairman Pai’s commitment to protecting services delivered via the C-Band, including working to make the transition effective and workable for satellite operators and their customers, thus ensuring that services that rely on the C-band can be maintained and protected throughout the transition.”
A Task of Epic Proportions
The clearing of 300 MHz of spectrum for broadband use will be a major undertaking. To make it happen, the NAB and broadcast companies emphasize that everyone involved must work together, and that, somehow, the FCC will need to get all parties on board, including the satellite companies that make up the rejected C-band Alliance.
How much involvement the FCC will grant the CBA in the Mid-band repack remains to be seen. This, in spite of the fact that the CBA has spent three years and millions of dollars to
in research and development to create not one, but two transition plans. The only plans developed, in fact, designed to both embrace 5G and allow C-band users to continue to send and receive programming unhindered.
To complete this transition correctly, a complex plan involving testing and oversight must be developed. To do so requires clear leadership and money, lots of it. In their proposal, the CBA had stated that stations and satellite owners should be compensated for all costs they incur in the transition, including the purchase of filters and high-price tag items like the launch of new orbital satellites. Whether or not the FCC agrees remains to be seen.
Throughout this process, the desire to quickly facilitate the deployment of 5G broadband has been the goal of nearly everyone inside the Beltway, including the White House, Congress and the FCC.
And, yes, protecting those who continue to use C-band for content delivery has been listed as a FCC “to do”. But is this lip service, or is the FCC serious?
In his letter to Congress outlining his plan for Mid-band, Chairman Pai seems clearly be reinforcing the importance of 5G over incumbents who are contractually in the space.
Pai writes, “First, we must make available a significant amount of C-band spectrum for 5G. Second, we must make C-band spectrum available for 5G quickly. Third, we must generate revenue for the federal government. And fourth, we must protect the services that are currently delivered using the C-band so they can continue to be delivered to the American people.”
Ever since Marconi’s first transmission in 1895, radio – followed closely by television – has been the backbone of broadcast communications in the US. They still are. Yet Chairman’s Pai’s list of principles that the FCC plan to advance in their upcoming rulemaking clearly gives 5G – as usual – the distinction of “favored” child.
What exactly that rulemaking will encompass will be made evident in the next few months, perhaps sooner. But for this to work for the American public, the FCC must develop a plan that equally protects C-band users and the rights of the satellite owners while embracing the expansion of 5G.