back to article Satellite operators' shares plummet as FCC plumps for public 5G spectrum auctions

The shares of satellite operators continued to plummet today after it became clear that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was going to seize valuable spectrum off them and resell it to mobile phone companies. On Monday, FCC chair Ajit Pai tweeted that he was going to back a public auction of the so-called C-Band …

  1. doublelayer Silver badge

    A side-effect

    This spectrum was clearly going to go to 5G at some point, and I don't care all that much how it got there, but with even more spectrum allocated to 5G, I confidently predict that mobiles will be even more fragmented than before. Even now, there are at least twenty LTE bands in common use. However, each operator usually only has one or two main bands that are available everywhere, and hence a device must support one of those in order to be any use on that provider. Manufacturers don't seem to be all that interested in covering those comprehensively, instead making their devices with an assortment of a few bands selected at random and, if necessary, making six different versions that are tailored to the frequencies used by one particular provider. The result of this is that it is hard to move devices on to or off of a provider whose band isn't one of the most typical in use. With 5G having spectrum that was previously not available to mobiles at all, that means a lot more bands, and even more effective constraint on which devices work with a provider.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: A side-effect

      Surely that's good for the poor confused consumer

      Instead of trying to compare dozens of different plans from different providers they can be assured that their Brand X phone supplied by Provider X will only work with Provider X's network.

      And we can ban the import of all those commie phones that might work across networks - for reasons of national security you understand

      1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: A side-effect

        Instead of trying to compare dozens of different plans from different providers they can be assured that their Brand X phone supplied by Provider X will only work with Provider X's network.

        Stops them roaming to other places as well, since there's no guarantee that their phone will be able to roam onto a network that has an agreement with their provider.

        1. Roland6 Silver badge

          Re: A side-effect

          >Stops them roaming to other places as well

          No, you can use a suitable phone loaned to you from your Provider.

          This is exactly what Orange (UK) did back in the 1990's, everytime I went to the US, I got Orange to courier me a US compatible phone into which I dropped my UK SIM. Mind you back them Orange did this as a service to their customers and so charged a user friendly rate for the phone.

    2. Warm Braw Silver badge

      Re: A side-effect

      Also, in a country the size of the US, wouldn't satellite be a better option for delivering rural broadband?

      1. Saruman the White Bronze badge

        Re: A side-effect

        Satelite can deliver broadband to rural areas, but it is very expensive (the cost of lobbing a satellite into orbit and then operating it for 20 years, plus the cost of the ground infrastructure, is truely out of this world). Also with GEO-based systems you have very long round-trip latency (ping times will be at least 480 ms, and can be longer depending on the slant range and coding overheads); try playing some of the modern games with that sort of network latency!

        LEO/MEO systems allow shorter ping times but you end up needing loads of satellites to provide coverage and probably tracking antennas on the ground (you can use omni-directional antennas, but the link budgets don't allow anythnig like true broadband). Both result in an even bigger cash outlay, making it even more expensive for the end-user.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: A side-effect

          What if you had private companies / evil Bond villains launching 1000s of satellites into LEO with a mesh network type system so you didn't need to track one target ?

          1. My-Handle

            Re: A side-effect

            Moreover, what if one such company demonstrated that all you needed was an appropriate terminal to beam a 640Mbps connection to, say, the cockpit of a DoD fighter jet?

          2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: A side-effect

            Yes, let's ruin astronomy so more people can play games.

            In my experience, satellite Internet service is generally rubbish. It's not so much the latency I mind, though it is annoying for SSH connections (I don't play online games). Weather can frequently cripple or disrupt service, and existing providers such as HughesNet impose ridiculous data-volume caps. Frankly, I don't see that improving much.

            The vast majority of the rural US population has utility electricity delivered by overhead wire. Adding fiber lines to those poles is a relatively small additional expense: most of the infrastructure already exists, and the power companies already have to do routine maintenance. At the Mountain Fastness, we have fiber-to-the-premises courtesy of the local power co-operative, which does exactly this. They created an ISP subsidiary to fund the rollout.

            For the cost of launching the satellites to provide equivalent coverage, you can run a lot of fiber alongside existing infrastructure. And once the fiber is already run next to someone's property, it becomes a lot easier to sell them a hookup and ISP contract.

          3. Saruman the White Bronze badge

            Re: A side-effect

            If you are talking about LEO constellations and using an omni antenna, basic physics starts to work against you. My company is working on a proof-of-concept mission based on a single (for testing purposes) 3U CubeSat using ground terminals with omni-antennas. The current system (it is still in the process of being designed) can hit a maximum data rate of about 10 kbps; however if the satellite is near the horizon then the data rate drops to a few hundred bps. Input power to the antenna is 20W (for both the ground station and the spacecraft), and the minimum safe distance from the antenna (i.e. how close you can get until your nadgers start to cook) is 40 cm.

            10 kbps is hardly broadband, so what will it require to achieve, lets say, 10 Mbps. Well we would need a physically larger antenna on both the satellite and the ground station - at adds quite a lot of cost at either end. More importantly is that, in order to keep the required Eb/N0 (energy per bit divided by the noise energy) you have to increase the input power into the antenna to abut 20 kW (assuming your RF system and antenna have the same efficiencies). Minimum safe distance to the ground antenna also increases to something in the region of 3 metres.

            The input power is OK for a ground terminal (but it will get expensive to run in the long term and is definitely not environmentally friendly) but is damn near impossible to achieve on a small satellite unless you start to fit the sort of massive solar arrays they use on the big GEO birds. Did I mention that these also cost significant $$$$.

            Another thing to think of is the lifetime of your satellite in LEO. GEO birds are often designed for lifetimes of 15 to 20 years, are are generally only limited by consumables (e.g. thruster fuel). For LEO satellites, atmospheric drag is the biggest limiting factor; LEO missions often talk about having to completely replace their constellations every 2 or 3 years (maximum). That means lots of rocket launches (also not environmentally friendly).

        2. s2bu

          Re: A side-effect

          Except C-Band is never going to be used for rural 5G as the transmission distances will suck. Where this will exclusively be used is more urban deployments where the bandwidth will be really convenient.

          So yes, less spectrum for satellites that can provide rural connectivity and more spectrum for latte sippers.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: A side-effect

            "Where this will exclusively be used is more urban deployments where the bandwidth will be really convenient."

            Bingo.

            4.9GHz is already used as a licensed Wifi band extension from 5GHz, this just widens the chanelling range and therefore allows increasing cell density when you're already at minimum power and using beamforming antennas

      2. JohnFen Silver badge

        Re: A side-effect

        You can get satellite broadband in the US. The problem is that it's pretty bad.

      3. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: A side-effect

        "wouldn't satellite be a better option for delivering rural broadband?"

        In general, if there's grid power - "no"

        However, if there's a monopoly provider able to charge whatever the hell they want, you can expect that the price will change to be slightly better than whatever satellite option is available, with slightly better T&C - and they may not bother if the sat terminals are pricey or they may rely on inertia.

        A funny thing back in the days of phone line deregulation in the USA - rural areas (such as West Virginia) which had party lines for decades and the incumbent telcos swearing black and blue they couldn't possibly afford to provide individual service suddenly had multiple telcos rolling out individual service at significantly reduced customer prices in the 1980s.

        There's been plenty of evidence that legislated local for-profit monopolies are toxic but US state PUCs across the 1990s kept rolling out "concessions" to telcos and cablecos (local monopolies, mergers they shouldn't have been allowed to have, etc) in exchange for infrastructure investments that never happened or were aborted shortly after projects started - and kept giving more of them despite the previous concession terms not being met. It's referred to by some as the 10 Trillion dollar consumer swindle - but I think that substantially understates the scale of the con job. AT&T has been completely reassembled in a form that passes the Sherman act, doesn't have that pesky "universal service" obligation from the 1930s antitrust settlements and has eliminated all the competing LECs (There are fewer independents now than in 1980)

    3. DougS Silver badge

      Re: A side-effect

      The cellular industry seems to have quite effectively pulled the wool over the eyes of the FCC, making them believe there is unlimited demand for new spectrum that must be fulfilled or China will win the mythical "race to 5G" so they are under pressure to open up vast new swathes. They have barely touched everything that has been sold off in the last few years and after apparently running out of unused spectrum they're starting to pull it away from those who are using it.

      I have to imagine the DoD is a huge juicy target of unused spectrum, that had bands allocated for various uses decades ago that are no longer relevant or ended up being canceled, but of course they won't touch that because all the Pentagon has to say is "it'll impact our readiness" and congressmen all cower in fear and start looking elsewhere.

    4. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: A side-effect

      Well... let's see... Pai and the companies are in bed together. Providers are shrinking due to mergers. Pretty soon, it will be just one or two provides. So problem solved.

    5. rcxb Bronze badge

      Re: A side-effect

      making their devices with an assortment of a few bands selected at random and, if necessary, making six different versions that are tailored to the frequencies used by one particular provider. The result of this is that it is hard to move devices on to or off of a provider whose band isn't one of the most typical in use.

      While the number of LTE bands grows, 2G bands have been dropped, and 3G bands are imminently to be dropped, allowing some bands to be dropped... OR reused meaning they can stop using other newer bands.

      Your experience with handsets is not mine at all. ATT and T-Mobile phones have each other's bands quite well covered (if not completely). The latest new bands the provider is pushing may lag behind in phones from the other carrier, but they get there. If nothing else, carriers want their phones to be able to roam onto the networks of others, where necessary.

      As for Verizon and Sprint, their 2G and 3G radios are completely incompatible with everything, anyhow, so they're a bit of a walled-garden. Give it a couple years, once 3G CDMA is shut-down and they'll start looking pretty standard and interoperable, too. They already have the main bands because, again, they want to be able to charge their customers lots of cash for time spent in roaming areas.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: A side-effect

        >Your experience with handsets is not mine at all. ATT and T-Mobile phones have each other's bands quite well covered (if not completely).

        It was more of a problem with the early 3G and 4G phones - I seem to remember it was a problem that arose with one of the iPhone releases where if you travelled between say Europe and SE.Asia then you would need a particular variant, which wasn't necessarily the variant on sale in your country. However, even a few years back not all phones sold in the UK for the UK market handled all the frequencies being used by the four UK operators - with each operator selling a variant which had a selection of radios chosen to get the best out of their network plus a few key frequencies (ie. the 2G frequencies) to enable roaming albeit with limited functionality.

        With 5G and the proliferation of frequencies, I suspect similar will apply: phones sold in a particular region will have variants that 'work' on Provider X's network and the agreed roaming frequencies. However, the buyer will need to investigate the spec's to determine the extent to which an unlocked variant will work on other Providers networks and the extent to which international roaming may be supported.

      2. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: A side-effect

        I took a look to have some specifics. As you were talking about American carriers, I looked up the bands in use. The one that most clearly makes my point is Verizon. Their main LTE band is band 13. Any device using their LTE network must support band 13 or it will stop working or drop to roaming inside the U.S. And not many other providers use band 13.

        I did a search on handsets to see what ones were covered. Your flagships are there, of course, with Apple and Samsung highly represented. However, let's check a few less expensive varieties. I quite like Xiaomi devices. They run Lineage OS pretty well and are at a nice pricepoint. How many support that band? Answer: not many. A growing category of devices on the database I checked is the 4G feature phone. What if you want one of those? I found none. So I then checked Verizon's website to see what they offered for 4G feature phones. They have options. All of four of them. With prices ranging from $100 to $264. And the cheapest is a Verizon-specific variant of a device available elsewhere, but that variant only supports bands 4, 5, and 13. Those are all Verizon bands, and only band 5 is heavily used elsewhere. If you want to move to another country, you should hope that that country has a provider on band 5 and that you like that provider over all the competitors, because you have no other choice.

        I then checked devices for the number of bands they covered. Apple's seem to be the best. The iPhone XS covers twenty one bands. But even that comes in four variants with a slightly different set of bands. For example, only one of the variants covers LTE band 11. If you're using your phone on the Japanese network Au, you'll need that one variant. Many other devices had four to eight bands. That may give you a few options, but not as many as you might hope.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: A side-effect

          "And not many other providers use band 13."

          The problems come down to antennas and receivers. It's easy enough to make radios operate at any given frequency in this age of software-defined oscillators, in the same way you can tie a string to a manhole cover and fly it as a kite given a strong enough wind.

          Having enough sensitivity to be USABLE across those frequency bands requires good matching of the aerial and decent tuned circuits out front. Wideband antennas/frontends necessarily lose sensitivity due to the drop in Q and there's only so much you can regain with software-defined tunable inductors.

          Covering ALL the bands makes for expensive RF sections. Covering the most common sets is much cheaper. It'll change eventually - just as 900/1800MHz phones became the norm and then quadband phones became the norm later instead of costing 3 times as much as the dualband ones. But it'll only change when there's sufficient market demand to justify selling them - and if Verizon have Band13 sewn up worldwide, then few makers have incentive to bundle support for that band into non-Verizon-specific phones.

          It works the other way too - if a telco has a world-unique frequency allocation, their telco-unique phones will be more expensive than standard ones for the same feature-set, which is a barrier to purchase if a competing telco is using "standard" bands. (Competition is a good thing, etc)

  2. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

    Sovereign Risk in practice.

  3. Garymrrsn
    Joke

    Comparing Politicians

    Politicians are like apple trees; shady and easily grafted.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Comparing Politicians

      @Garymrrsn

      I cannot upvote your comment enough. Though I could ask whether you meant to say "shafted" instead of "grafted". Since when did a fucking politician ever graft?

      Nonetheless, please go out tonight and get shitfaced as your reward.

      Ishy

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Comparing Politicians

        Depends on your definition of graft - if you stick to the OED then politicians may not graft but it typically means directing government funding towards chosen suppliers for kickbacks -

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graft_(politics)

        Also, the more up-to-date Urban Dictionary appears to have a suitable definition as usual in terms of putting in the groundwork to ensure someone gets f**ked...

        1. Roland6 Silver badge

          Re: Comparing Politicians

          >Depends on your definition of graft

          I thought given the context of apple trees the definition being used was the horticultural one... Just that politicians will willingly graft themselves on to any passing bandwagon if there is a benefit to them...

  4. PeterM42
    Trollface

    Money......

    Makes the world (Internet) go round.

  5. imanidiot Silver badge

    Meanwhile in the real world

    Nobody I know is actually in need of 5G or cares about it much if at all.So what are we doing all of this for exactly?

    1. ThatOne Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Meanwhile in the real world

      > what are we doing all of this for exactly?

      Well, it's the industry's favorite occupation: Build a gravy train, chase it, profit...

      (Also, a company's health isn't determined by its current profits, but by its growth potential, so any company needs to constantly grow, even if it's just a cancerous growth leading nowhere.)

  6. David Pearce

    There goes international roaming

    I cannot see governments in the tropics allowing C band 5G, C band VSAT is the only satellite technology that works when it rains heavily.

    I remember when you had to have a special USA cellphone because of their 800MHz band AMPS

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: There goes international roaming

      I get that this harks back to the days when phones had to be dual/tri band for roaming, and marketed as such since it was a big deal. But...

      Is it really that difficult for phone manufacturers to develop phones that work across all available 5g bands? And if not, wouldn't 5g phones still support 4g and fall back to that if 5g isn't available on a band they support?

      1. Timo

        Re: There goes international roaming

        Mobile device manufacturers certainly could make a device that handles all bands, but it would not be practical. Each band generally needs its own filtering, amplifier and antenna, although a few bands overlap so could be supported without as much work.

        So it drives up cost and complexity, and size. And power consumption. It was a huge breakthrough to get 4 bands in a phone.

        1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

          Re: There goes international roaming

          Each band generally needs its own filtering, amplifier and antenna,

          Most of that is defined in software these days, so supporting new bands is usually just a case of a new firmware load. There's no real reason why a phone couldn't look at the providers it can see & reconfigure itself to support the bands they use in that area.

  7. Jellied Eel Silver badge

    I cannot see governments in the tropics allowing C band 5G, C band VSAT is the only satellite technology that works when it rains heavily.

    It might also affect reporting/news services. I've not been keeping up with broadcast tech, but VSAT was (is?) used with small terminals for on-scene reporting. If there's a gap between spectrum seizure and 5G rollout. BGAN-style terminals I think use the L-band for their comms, but up/downlinks to earthstations use C-band because that has the capacity to support OB services, along with a lot of maritime L-band traffic.

    Which I guess could be fun. Land-based services could potentially switch to 5G, but that's not going to work for maritime. And I think switching to V/W-band just makes rain fade worse.

    1. Timo

      VSAT uses the Ku or Ka band, as physics of the higher frequencies allows for smaller physical antennas to have much higher gains. Most applications have moved away from C band anyway due to the huge dish required to get usable gain. As people have already noted Ku and Ka are much more susceptible to rain fade, but can be somewhat overcome by power control margins.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        I'm thinking more the impact on the earth segments rather than terminal links. Those have been C-band in the past where dish size is less of a factor at the earth stations.

        1. Timo

          bent pipe satellites don't work that way

          That's not generally how satellites work - they don't use C-band for the terrestrial link and Ku/Ka on the terminal link. I'm saying "generally" because there are some in the recent generation of equipment that do translate.

          1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

            Re: bent pipe satellites don't work that way

            Think I've figured out my confusion. So thinking of Inmarsat's I-series birds where BGAN's L-band but F3 also supplies WAAS using a C-band upllink & L down. Dunno if WAAS is shifting frequencies given I-birds are nearing EOL & moving to Boing's 702SP K+/- broadband sats.

            From skimming the C-band alliance's docs, seems like it's mostly TV that'll be affected, and fixable with some guard filters. So bun fighting moves from who can flog spectrum to who pays for those I guess.

      2. David Pearce

        The K bands are used for services like satellite TV, where losing 10 minutes a day in heavy rain is not the end of the world

        Services like distributing terrestrial TV to islands still use C band. There is no terrestrial alternative in many countries in SE Asia.

        1. Timo

          this will be US-only

          Other regions of the world will still be able to keep using C-band, as they have uses for it.

          Also - for the US it is only affecting part of the band, this would be 200-300 MHz of the 500-MHz C-band. So there would still be some capacity there if needed.

    2. Mike 16 Silver badge

      Impact on reporting

      Might be considered another good reason to shut it down. The way it seems most governments around the globe are moving, making it harder on reporters not controlled by said governments, _plus_ the extra cash from mobile operators, could be considered a "win-win".

      And of course being able to watch HD cat videos (if within a few hundred meters of a 5G mast) is _clearly_ more important than finding out the tanks have rolled.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All those brown envelopes.

  9. JohnFen Silver badge

    It's sad

    It's sad that spectrum will be removed from actually useful purposes in order to boost this 5G boondoggle.

  10. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

    Tips and corrections

    Why was Pai so undecided? It turns out because his formeractual employer – Verizon – was actually in favor of the private auction.

    FTFY.

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