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Battle over 5G spectrum pits industry giants in satellite vs. fiber debate

Major players in the U.S. video delivery market are divided over how to open up key spectrum for next-generation 5G wireless use, with some groups calling for aggressive action on infrastructure and others urging more caution.

A key point of contention involves whether to transition video programmers and pay TV operators away from C-band spectrum delivery for programming backhaul to terrestrial fiber video delivery. The 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band, commonly referred to as the C-band is currently allocated in the U.S. for fixed-satellite service or space-to-Earth transmissions, such as the satellite delivery of cable and broadcast network programming to TV stations, radio services and cable facilities. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is looking at opening it up for wireless use.

As the FCC seeks comment on uses of the band, two rival industry proposals have emerged. One, submitted by the C-band Alliance — formed by the four satellite operators that provide the vast majority of C-band satellite services in the U.S.— would largely preserve the existing video distribution model but would make up to 200 MHz of C-band spectrum available through secondary sales. The other, dubbed the 5G Plus Plan, comes from a coalition that includes the cable trade group ACA Connects - America's Communications Association; Charter Communications Inc.; and the Competitive Carriers Association, a group that represents rural, regional and national telecom operators. By transitioning to fiber, the plan proposes freeing up at least 370 MHz of C-band spectrum, which would then be sold through an FCC-led auction.

ACA Connects has estimated the video distribution industry can complete a transition to fiber within 18 months in urban areas and within three years in most other areas, though it acknowledged that a few outlying areas may require as long as five years. In reply comments filed Aug. 14, the C-band Alliance called the ACA-led coalition's timeline for a nationwide fiber rollout unrealistic. The National Association of Broadcasters said such a massive fiber transition "will inevitably lead to years of delay and gross cost overruns," and called fiber less reliable than C-band delivery.

Programming giants including CBS Corp., Discovery Inc., Fox Corp., Walt Disney Co., Univision Communications Inc. and Viacom Inc. have also raised concerns about the "complexity, timing, reliability challenges, and cost" of transitioning the current video distribution infrastructure from one based primarily on satellite to one based mostly on fiber.

The ACA coalition defended its plan in regulatory filings, saying that new fiber builds would only be necessary for about 30% of route miles where redundant paths and capacity do not exist. On the reliability question, the cable-led group said, "All distribution networks — including satellite — experience occasional outages, but fiber networks are typically designed with redundancy to ensure that occasional fiber cuts to do not diminish the level of service to customers or disrupt the network."

ACA Connects President and CEO Matthew Polka said in an Aug. 15 statement that the 5G Plus Plan "is the only proposal on record that appropriately balances the interests of all affected stakeholders – pay television providers and cable programmers, other C-band users, satellite companies, prospective 5G deployers, and the public at large ... the 5G Plus Plan is workable to implement and cost-effective."

It remains unclear how soon the FCC will make a decision on its C-band spectrum proceeding. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in July that the commission is "working on the complicated task of freeing up spectrum for 5G" in the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band, suggesting the commission may have "results to show on this front this fall."

The proceeding on C-band spectrum is part of the FCC's larger efforts to get more mid-band spectrum is in the marketplace. Mid-band spectrum is seen as important for 5G since the high band cannot travel far distances or penetrate certain surfaces, and low-band spectrum has become crowded due to 4G wireless services.