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The three satellite operators currently using C-band spectrum in Canada are Ottawa-based Telesat – headquarters seen here in Ottawa on Dec. 18, 2006 – and two global satellite companies, SES and IntelsatFRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Satellite operators are asking to be paid to vacate spectrum – airwaves used to transmit wireless signals – that Ottawa wants to repurpose for the coming wave of fifth-generation wireless services.

Such a move would break historical precedent in Canada, according to documents filed with the federal government, but the satellite companies say it is necessary if Ottawa wants them to move quickly to free up scarce and valuable airwaves. If the migration isn’t done carefully, some existing services could be at risk, according to Telesat Canada.

“Clearing [that] spectrum is a highly costly and technically challenging undertaking,” Stephen Hampton, head of government affairs at Telesat, said in an e-mail. “If this spectrum is not cleared in a co-ordinated and thoughtful way, when 5G services launch, important services across Canada – including broadband to rural communities, TV broadcast distribution and national and public safety networks – will go down.”

The federal government launched a consultation in August on repurposing a portion of the so-called “C-band” of the electromagnetic spectrum – frequencies in the 3,650 to 4,200 megahertz (MHz) range – for 5G. This technology promises faster speeds and a vast increase in the number of connected devices. Governments around the world have designated the spectrum band for next-generation wireless technology because it can carry large amounts of data over significant distances.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) wants satellite operators to clear 250 MHz of the band by December, 2023. Ottawa’s proposal follows a similar move by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which has set a deadline of 2025 for clearing the C-band but is offering satellite operators up to US$9.7-billion in total if they can vacate those airwaves by the end of 2023.

The band is currently used by communications satellites to beam television broadcasts and, in rural areas, broadband internet service to customers’ homes. It’s also used to provide connectivity to ships, oil rigs, air navigation systems and other industries that are out of reach of ground-based telecom networks.

The three satellite operators currently using C-band spectrum in Canada – Ottawa-based Telesat and two global satellite companies, SES and Intelsat – will need to move their existing traffic into the upper portion of the band or onto different frequencies. Telesat is planning to eventually move its customers to a new constellation of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites it has in the works.

Vacating the airwaves will be a complex, laborious and costly process, the satellite companies say in their filings to the federal government. New equipment will need to be installed at the ground stations that communicate with the satellites, Luxembourg-based SES said in its written comments. Antennas may need to be repointed.

Clearing the C-band in the U.S. will require operators to collectively launch 12 new satellites into orbit, according to SES.

If the airwaves are to be vacated in Canada as quickly as Ottawa would like, the satellite operators will need to be compensated, the company argues.

“If Canada wants the U.S. timeline, it has to adopt the U.S. framework,” John Purvis, senior legal adviser at SES, said in an interview.

The satellite operators did not specify how much they believe they should be paid. SES said in its filing that the government should provide compensation similar to that offered by the FCC, while Intelsat requested that the payment be “equitable.”

Without some form of compensation, “it is reasonable to anticipate that the arduous effort of clearing the band in Canada will take satellite operators until at least December, 2025,” Intelsat says in its written comments.

Telesat, meanwhile, has offered to clear even more spectrum than Ottawa is requesting – 400 MHz in total – on an expedited basis, provided that it’s permitted to sell some of those airwaves to wireless carriers and use the proceeds to fund its new LEO constellation. (The rest of the band would be Ottawa’s to auction off.)

However, paying the satellite operators to clear the band would go against the federal government’s own policies and historical precedent, rural Internet provider Xplornet Communications Inc. said in a written submission to ISED. Ottawa has not provided payment during any recent spectrum clawbacks – including of the 3,500 MHz, 600 MHz or 2,500 MHz bands – even in cases where the spectrum was still in use, the company said.

“If ISED were to depart from its established policy and precedent, Xplornet submits that this should be done for all impacted parties,” the company argues.

Xplornet recently lost some of its 3,500 MHz spectrum; the band is also being repurposed for 5G, and licences for those airwaves will be auctioned off starting in June, 2021.

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