Google, Charter argue CBA sale would inevitably lead to lawsuits

Representatives of Google and Charter Communications are taking away one of the key arguments for satellite operators’ proposal to sell C-band spectrum for 5G, saying such a sale would inevitably lead to lawsuits and thereby delay the availability of the spectrum.

Colleen King, vice president of regulatory affairs at Charter, and Staci Pies, senior policy counsel at Google, were speaking on a panel titled “The Great Airwaves Robbery II: Will Taxpayers or Satellite Companies Receive $15-40 Billion?” hosted by the Wireless Future Project of the Open Technology Institute (OTI) at New America on Tuesday.

Importantly, King and Pies did not say their companies are going to file suit, but they suggested that too many parties are interested in the C-band spectrum and it doesn’t seem clear that a private sale of the kind being proposed by the C-Band Alliance (CBA) is permitted under the law; therefore, lawsuits will ensue if the government decides to go down that path.

The CBA—comprised of Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat Communications and Telesat—has been proposing to sell 200 megahertz of C-band spectrum to wireless operators, saying it’s the fastest way to make this midband spectrum available for 5G. According to the CBA, its proposal is the most expeditious way to get midband spectrum into the hands of U.S. wireless operators efficiently and voluntarily.

As the title of the panel implies, OTI is not in favor of having satellite operators decide how the spectrum gets allocated and has filed comments with the FCC voicing its opposition, saying it would prefer the FCC hold a public incentive auction. The FCC currently is in the process of deciding whether to hold an auction or accept the proposal or some form of it by the CBA.

Under the CBA’s proposal, satellite companies could receive an estimated $15 billion to $40 billion or more for spectrum they licensed at no cost, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project, at New America. (The CBA has refuted that, claiming Intelsat and SES bought the rights to C-band spectrum for billions of dollars in secondary market transactions.)

The U.S. terrestrial wireless industry has been champing at the bit for more midband spectrum. CTIA just this week pointed to a 2018 study from Analysis Group that shows other countries plan to make over four times more licensed midband spectrum available than the United States by 2020. It also said that making 400 MHz of midband spectrum available for commercial 5G networks will add $274 billion to the U.S. economy and create 1.3 million new jobs.

Charter is both a beneficiary of earth stations in the C-band and a relatively new entrant in wireless that may want to bid for midband spectrum. King said Charter’s biggest concern is that a private sale would prohibit it from getting 5G spectrum.

“We think an FCC auction is really the fastest, fairest and most efficient way to get spectrum out” and make it available to all different kinds of players, including Charter, she said.

For Google, it’s critically important that there’s enough spectrum available for 5G, and the best way for that to happen is to have an orderly, efficient process to get the spectrum out there, according to Pies. One of the reasons Google is engaged in this proceeding is it’s a big proponent of spectrum sharing—it’s been heavily involved in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service as a Spectrum Access System administrator, and the company has a lot of expertise in building databases for information sharing.

Google also believes that the higher portion of C-band spectrum could be made available immediately (PDF) for fixed point-to-multipoint services to deliver broadband, particularly in rural areas.

Reallocating the lower portion of the band for mobile services is more complicated but an important objective. “We believe that the private sale option proposed by the C-Band Alliance, although interesting, is not the fastest way” to ensure the spectrum is reallocated, Pies said. “We think there’s significant risk” if the FCC forgoes a public auction in favor of a private administrator.

Other participants on Tuesday’s panel included Ross Lieberman, senior vice president of government affairs at the American Cable Association, and Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

RELATED: T-Mobile, C-Band Alliance spar over plans for 3.7-4.2 GHz

No one from the CBA was on the panel to argue its case, a situation that Preston Padden, the head of Advocacy and Government Relations for CBA, promptly pointed out when he got the microphone to kick off the Q&A session. That led to a heated exchange between Padden and pretty much everyone on the panel.

Steve Sharkey, vice president of government affairs technology and engineering policy at T-Mobile, also attended as a member of the audience and defended T-Mobile’s proposal for an incentive auction, which it says would allow market forces to determine the true value of the C-band spectrum for terrestrial mobile services and benefit American taxpayers.