DBS: The questions are many

Sun, 07/31/2005 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Jeffrey Krauss
Jeffrey Krauss
President of
and Technology
Back in July 2002 (p. 74), I wrote about new DBS satellites that were proposed to operate with 4.5 degree spacing, located in between existing DBS satellites. And I mentioned the new DBS frequency allocation goes into effect in 2007. While the FCC is moving at a glacial pace and hasn't really done anything that could qualify as "action," there have been some developments. But anyway, these developments aren't likely to bring on additional DBS competitors—just more capacity for Echostar and DirecTV.

In 1983, the Western Hemisphere countries got together and decided on a DBS orbital slot plan with 9 degree spacing, based on the analog technology of the time. For the U.S., 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. All of the transponders at these three slots are controlled by Echostar or DirecTV.

In April 2002, SES Americom filed a sensational proposal to put a DBS satellite at 105.5 degrees, only 4.5 degrees away from existing satellites. Then Echostar filed for satellites at 86.5, 96.5 and 123.5 degrees. In December 2003, the FCC issued a Public Notice asking for comments on the technical feasibility of reduced spacing for DBS satellites. Not surprisingly, DirecTV submitted studies showing that the SES proposal would create interference to U.S. DBS customers, and would require larger dishes (90 cm instead of 45 cm). Moreover, DirecTV claimed that SES has already leased the capacity of a 105.5 degree satellite to Echostar, rather than starting up a new DBS service to compete against DirecTV and Echostar.

Meanwhile, DirecTV launched the DirecTV 7S satellite into the 119 degree orbital slot. DirecTV is licensed to use 11 channels at that location, and the new satellite will employ spot beam technology on four of these channels, reusing them 10 times each, and a national beam on the remaining seven channels. It provides DirecTV with the capacity to deliver local channels to 41 additional markets, but is even more susceptible to interference from a satellite spaced at 4.5 degrees.

What happens next? It depends on whether FCC engineers believe DirecTV's calculations that show interference will occur, or SES's calculations that show it will not. Even if they believe SES, it will probably still be years before they change the FCC's rules and new satellites are launched.

In my 2002 column, I briefly mentioned the new DBS allocation. While the current DBS services use 12.2–12.7 GHz as their broadcast frequency, the new allocation uses 17.3 GHz to 17.8 GHz. Now wait a minute—that's the band used by Echostar and DirecTV for their uplink signals. Won't there be interference? The experts will say that 17 GHz DBS receivers might receive interference if they are located near the DirecTV and Echostar 17 GHz uplink stations, but there are only a few of these, and they are mostly in less populated areas.

That discussion was academic until February 2005, when Intelsat filed applications for new 17 GHz DBS satellites at four orbital locations over the U.S. For much of its history, Intelsat was an international treaty organization with monopoly rights to carry international satellite traffic. Within the past year, Intelsat was privatized, and it is now owned by a consortium of private investment companies. It already operates a fleet of 27 C-band and Ku-band satellites, but this is its first venture into the broadcasting satellite business.

The Intelsat satellite antenna and transponder plan is pretty complicated, illustrating how satellite technology has become more sophisticated over time. The satellites will have antennas capable of transmitting to North America and South America at the same time, and capable of local spot beams and both national and multinational wide area beams. A satellite can cover the U.S. with about 24 spot beams. When transponders are used with spot beam antennas, they can be reused up to five times. Using two polarizations, there are 32 transponders, each with a 24 MHz bandwidth. The satellites are designed with a 13-year lifetime. They are designed to operate with 4 degree orbital spacing, and with 0.45 meter home earth station antennas.

What happens next? Well, as yet, the FCC has no licensing policies or technical requirements for this new band. Are licenses to be auctioned or given away to Intelsat for free? If auctioned, who is eligible? Are Echostar, DirecTV and cable companies eligible to operate these new systems? What's the orbital spacing? Power limits? And then there are more complex technical questions about using the 100 MHz between 17.7 GHz and 17.8 GHz, which is currently populated by some point-to-point microwave links in the U.S.

I don't sense any urgency at the FCC to deal with these questions. But maybe it's because it expects that whoever gets the new licenses, either at 17 GHz or short-spaced at 12 GHz, the capacity will ultimately be leased to DirecTV or Echostar. Not to a new third DBS competitor. And the FCC is powerless to prevent that.

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