New DBS satellites?

Sun, 06/30/2002 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, DBS Denominatorand President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

By Jeffrey Krauss,
DBS Denominator
and President of Telecommunications
and Technology Policy
Did you think that DBS subscribers are forever doomed to a choice between EchoStar and DirecTV? Or to no choice at all, if they merge? If so, you've forgotten about the plan for DBS orbital slots, and the possibility of changing that plan.

Back in 1983, the Western Hemisphere countries met and divided up the satellite orbital arc at 12.2 to 12.7 GHz for Direct Broadcast Satellite use. The United States got orbital slots at 61.5, 101, 110, 119, 148, 157, 166 and 175 degrees. Canada, Mexico and other countries got other orbital slots. Each orbital slot supports 32 transponders of 24 MHz each.

The three slots at 101, 110 and 119 degrees are the most valuable, because satellites at these slots can be seen by small earth terminals throughout the entire United States. The other orbital locations can provide reliable service to only part of the U.S. And indeed, all of the transponders at these three slots are controlled by Echostar or DirecTV. Moreover, Echostar also controls most of the transponders at the 61.5-degrees and 148-degrees slots as well.

New applications

Within the last few months, two new DBS proposals have come into the FCC, from Northpoint Technologies and from SES Americom. Remember that Northpoint is the company that proposed to deliver terrestrial video signals in the 12.2 to 12.7 GHz DBS band, avoiding interference into south-pointed DBS receivers by carefully pointing its transmitting antennas to the south. The FCC determined that this service (now called Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service or MVDDS) could indeed coexist with DBS. But shortly after Northpoint filed its satellite applications, the FCC decided to award MVDDS licenses by auction, rather than giving them all to Northpoint for free.

Anyway, Northpoint filed applications for the 157-degrees and 166-degrees orbital slots. The slots are too far west to be seen by East Coast subscribers. The Northpoint satellites would have multiple antenna beams, covering the continental U.S. (except for the East Coast), as well as Alaska, Hawaii, Australia and other areas in Asia.

In addition to delivering video, Northpoint proposed to use these satellites as part of an integrated satellite/terrestrial service, combined with its terrestrial video delivery service. Of course, that was when it expected to get the terrestrial licenses for free and without a contest. Now it will have to bid real dollars against other spectrum speculators for the terrestrial licenses.

One might hypothesize that the real motivation for the Northpoint DBS application was to increase its chances of getting the terrestrial licenses assigned to it without an auction. The law governing spectrum auctions prohibits the FCC from auctioning spectrum used for international satellite systems, so perhaps the company thought it could reformulate its terrestrial proposal as an international satellite/terrestrial system and take advantage of that law. If so, the ploy does not seem to have worked.

I presume that the next step for the Northpoint application will be for the FCC to release a Public Notice, opening a filing window and asking other interested parties to file applications. If other applications are filed for these orbital slots, the FCC will then have to decide whether to hold an auction or use some other method to assign licenses.

The SES Americom proposal is very different. SES Americom is the company we used to know as RCA Americom and then GE Americom. Rather than Northpoint's plan of going for orbital slots that could not serve the full United States, SES applied for a slot at 105.5 degrees, halfway between two slots from the 1983 plan. This would amount to changing the plan, but there are procedures for that.

The 1983 orbital spacing of 9 degrees was based on the analog technology of that time. It assumes an interference protection ratio of 28 dB is needed, while more recent plans for Europe and Asia based on digital technology use a 21 dB protection ratio. SES submitted calculations showing that a satellite at this new orbital slot will not cause interference into the existing subscriber earth stations that point to the Echostar and DirecTV satellites at 101 degrees and 110 degrees. Echostar and DirecTV will have their own opportunity to analyze the SES calculations and submit their own calculations, so stay tuned.

The licensing situation with regard to this orbital slot is quite different from the Northpoint case. Since this slot was not part of the 1983 plan, it does not "belong" to the United States. So SES went to Gibraltar, and Gibraltar filed the necessary papers with the ITU in Geneva to secure this slot for SES. Under a 1997 FCC decision, foreign-licensed satellites may provide service to the U.S., so SES has come in to the FCC under the provisions of that decision. SES still needs FCC approval to provide services into the U.S. from this slot, but it is too late for anyone else to try to get authorization to use the slot.

This isn't the end, of course. Watch for more new applications between the other DBS slots now spaced at nine degrees. And then in 2007, a new frequency band allocation for DBS comes into effect. Wheee!

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