Signal Skirmish

Satellite, land-based providers war over spectrum

The federal communications commission is once again at the center of a passionate spectrum debate, this time over the 12.2-gigahertz to 12.7-GHz band that direct broadcast satellite providers use to deliver television and broadband service.

But the spectrum skirmish might just be cover in a higher-stakes battle for customers, as upstarts make their move into DirecTV and EchoStar Communications territory.

Broadwave USA/Northpoint Technology and MDS America both say they have developed land-based network technology that can use DBS spectrum to deliver TV and high-speed Internet access without interfering with service provided by DirecTV and EchoStar. But the satellite broadcasters say that the terrestrial Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service (MVDDS) systems will degrade their offerings.

Both sides back up their claims with the results of a study ordered by Congress and done by independent researcher The Mitre Corp. The report concluded that MVDDS can interfere with the satellite broadcasters downlinks, but there are ways to mitigate the problem, including adjusting or moving satellite dishes.

"We have over 15 million happy DBS customers who could quickly become unhappy," says James Ashurst, a spokesman at the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association, arguing that the mitigation techniques suggested in the Mitre report are onerous for DBS customers.

While Broadwave and MDS America stand united against satellite broadcasters, theyre embroiled in a dustup of their own.

Broadwave has long claimed that it has the only technology of its kind and should be awarded licenses without having to bid in an FCC auction. But then MDS America arrived on the scene, reporting that MDS International, which licenses its technology to MDS America, already offers terrestrial-based services worldwide in the DBS spectrum — without interfering with satellite providers.

Broadwave, however, reviewed the 20 examples of international commercial service MDS America submitted to the FCC and concluded that MDS International doesnt actually share spectrum already being used by satellite providers.

MDS America didnt file a proposal to use spectrum during the period specified by the FCC, so its technology wasnt tested for Mitres report. "They would have found a lot less cause for worry if they had tested ours, because it would have given them other mitigation techniques we use that ensure there arent any problems," says Kirk Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of MDS America.

Under a recently awarded experimental FCC license, MDS America will test its technology to determine if it interferes with DBS service. Depending on the outcome of the tests by consultants LCC International, the FCC may decide to conduct experiments of its own.

But Broadwave, which has been working toward FCC approval of commercial MVDDS service since 1994, doesnt want to wait that long, and argues that MDS America should have stepped forward when the FCC originally asked for proposals to use the spectrum. "Since MDS missed the boat, the FCC shouldnt have to wait until they finish testing because then theyll have to do an independent test," says Toni Cook Bush, executive vice president at Broadwave. "We dont want to be delayed anymore."

Competition More at Issue

Where Broadwave and MDS America can agree is that the satellite players might be more interested in blocking potential competition then ensuring the integrity of their services. "One would imagine that since the DBS people have no experience in mitigating between terrestrial and satellite systems, they are probably more concerned about business competition then interference with signals," Kirkpatrick says.

Broadwave points out that the DBS providers have agreed to share their spectrum with other companies, but wont directly compete with them. "Its not as if were the only company saying we want to share, but the others wont be multichannel video providers," Bush says.

Broadwave and MDS America arent the only companies hoping to use satellite spectrum for terrestrial systems. New ICO has sent a proposal to the FCC, requesting permission for mobile satellite services operators with licenses for the 2-GHz spectrum to use land-based repeaters to extend signals from the satellite constellation in areas where customers typically cant use satellite phones.

Existing mobile telephone operators are expected to take issue with the proposal, because it can be seen as a request from the satellite industry to use satellite-specific spectrum for terrestrial mobile services.

"Weve made every attempt to show this is truly ancillary, and wed have to have satellites up and operating," says Gerry Salemme, senior vice president of external affairs at New ICO. The proposal would require the operators to have satellites in space before developing a terrestrial system.

New ICO hopes that the terrestrial component can give the ailing mobile satellite industry a boost. "Its an issue of how to make it commercially viable when times are bad," Salemme says.