Dish Network Corp. and a startup funded by Dell Technologies Inc. founder and CEO Michael Dell are quietly urging the Federal Communications Commission to allow 5G mobile broadband services on airwaves now used to beam satellite TV services to U.S. households.
Dish, as part of a coalition, and RS Access LLC separately have been pushing FCC officials in private meetings and agency filings for permission to change their licenses for 12 GHz spectrum, which sits between coveted mid-band frequencies and millimeter wave airwaves.
The push comes as the FCC is being pressured to free up as much of a finite resource as possible for next-generation, ultra-fast internet service.
If the FCC allows the changes, the value of the licenses would increase by billions of dollars, especially since they now only allow for limited fixed broadband services and haven’t been updated for nearly two decades, according to an analysis by New Street Research, which specializes in telecom policy.
The license changes would turn underused airwaves into highly valued frequencies, Roger Entner, a wireless analyst and founder of Recon Analytics, said.
“If 12 GHz gets repurposed, you’re turning lead into gold,” Entner said.
A commission spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would grant the license changes. Doing so would give the companies more options to make money off the spectrum, either by offering 5G services or selling the licenses to other carriers.
RS Access, which provides fixed broadband connections to entities such as Texas A&M University’s first responder training school and veterans services groups, said a changed license would mean current service improvements and potential future partnerships with other internet service providers, CEO and founder V. Noah Campbell said in an email.
“If the FCC approved the changes we’re proposing we would be in a position to offer enhanced services to our existing partners while exploring a much wider variety of use cases,” Campbell said. RS Access’ licenses cover about 17% of the U.S. population and could be valued as high as half a billion dollars, New Street estimates.
Dish declined to comment on its plans for the airwaves. But the licensing change could help it establish a planned nationwide 5G network, something the Department of Justice favors to offset any potential competitive harms from T-Mobile US Inc.'s acquisition of Sprint Corp. Dish’s licenses reach 73% of the U.S. population and could fetch $8.6 billion if sold, according to New Street.
The FCC has focused so far on a different part of the spectrum, known as the C-band, in its efforts to ready mid-band airwaves for 5G. The commission recently decided to auction those licenses, rejecting a satellite company consortium’s plan to sell their airwaves rights for potentially billions of dollars.
RS Access and Dish argue that the 12 GHz band would be easier to repurpose for 5G because it’s not as intensely used as the C-band, which cable companies and broadcasters rely on to distribute TV shows to more than 100 million U.S. households. The 12 GHz band is currently only used for satellite TV services, a market that lost about 2.3 million subscribers in 2018 alone, according to Leichtman Research Group Inc.
“Such spectrum will be essential to support smart cities, transform industrial sectors, and deliver new performance and capabilities to consumers, small businesses, and enterprise customers,” RS Access said in a recent FCC filing.
The 12 GHz spectrum could provide more 5G spectrum than the C-band—500 MHz compared to 280 MHz—and could handle the high volume of data traffic suitable for 5G while covering much larger areas than millimeter wave frequencies used by Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. for initial 5G deployments, Dish and RS Access say. Millimeter airwaves at higher frequencies can handle blistering fast data speeds but fade quickly; low-band airwaves travel further but carry less data.
“I’m a little bit surprised that the FCC hasn’t spent a little bit more time looking at that, because that’s certainly a place for 5G spectrum,” Dish chairman and co-founder Charles W. Ergen said about the 12 GHz band on an earnings call in November. “Hopefully at some point we can convince the FCC to take a look at it.”
The licensing changes the companies are seeking would permit mobile wireless use on the frequencies, instead of just fixed broadband, and two-way transmissions, instead of one-way. RS Access also says power limits on 12 GHz band antennas prevent it from making more effective use of the frequencies.
Dish first petitioned the FCC to open up the 12 GHz band for mobile use in 2016 as part of a coalition that includes smaller telecom providers such as Braunston Spectrum LLC and Cass Cable TV Inc.
RS Access, founded in 2018, isn’t a coalition member but began ramping up its lobbying in October. The company has met twice with FCC officials in as many months to present its plan to foster 5G uses on the frequencies.
“The 12 GHz band is 500 megahertz of contiguous mid-band spectrum that is sorely needed for 5G and can help ensure U.S. technological leadership now and in the future,” RS Access said in a recent FCC filing. “Successful modernization of the 12 GHz band could be the crowning achievement of the Commission’s successful 5G spectrum policy.”
Although the spectrum licenses were sold in 2004 in an agency auction that raised $118 million, the companies say they could never use them effectively. The licenses allow for fixed broadband use—one of three uses allowed on the 12 GHz band—but FCC rules designed to spur that use while protecting satellites that use the band to deliver TV shows never took off.
OneWeb, which is partnering with Airbus SE to launch a constellation of 900 satellites that will offer high-speed internet connections on the band, argued in a recent FCC filing that allowing 5G mobile devices on 12 GHz frequencies would “drastically alter the operating environment in the 12 GHz band and undercut the billions of dollars in investment” in new satellite internet services.
AT&T, whose Direct TV uses its 12 GHz band airwaves for satellite TV services, told the FCC last year that “terrestrial mobile and consumer satellite receivers often cannot coexist on a co-channel basis without rigorous coordination.” Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which plans to provide high-speed satellite internet over the frequencies, opposed the Dish coalition request in 2016. A SpaceX spokesperson said the company had no further comment.
The Dish coalition has touted an engineering study it commissioned that says mobile services can be deployed on the airwaves without disrupting satellite TV signals. RS Access says spectrum-sharing mechanisms can protect satellite services, both TV and planned internet, from interference, pointing to a system that lets U.S. Navy radars share the 3.5 GHz band with commercial providers as a potential blueprint.
“Enormous advances in technology coupled with evolving modes of service delivery have created tremendous new possibilities for flexible use of the 12 GHz band for mobile communications while also protecting existing satellite services,” RS Access told the FCC.