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Intelsat soars as proposal for new airwaves uses progresses

Success for the proposal could yield a "transformative windfall" of US$5b to US$13b: analyst


SATELLITE operators Intelsat SA and SES SA beam video programming from space down to TV stations and cable systems across the US. Now they want to let Earth-bound wireless companies hitch a ride on some of their airwaves.

If regulators go along with the plan, the Luxembourg-based companies could reap billions of dollars in fees from mobile providers such as AT&T Inc or Verizon Communications Inc, which are constantly seeking frequencies to serve the burgeoning demand of wireless devices.

Investors are salivating. Since the companies announced their joint proposal on Feb 9, Intelsat bonds have risen and its shares soared almost 600 per cent, as investors anticipate an opportunity to reduce the company's crushing US$14.2 billion in debt. SES with less debt is up more than 14 per cent.

Intelsat and SES say they're reacting to a push by the Federal Communications Commission for more airwaves for domestic wireless companies to accommodate the so-called internet of things that will enable millions of devices in homes, cars and factories to chatter among themselves.

"We didn't propose this solution because we sought an opportunity," Steve Spengler, Intelsat's chief executive officer, said in an email. "We proposed a solution in response to a very specific FCC request for access to our spectrum."

The companies have proposed to the FCC that they be allowed to devote one-fifth of their airwaves to new uses by mobile network operators. Current users, which include the likes of Comcast Corp and CBS Corp, would operate on the remaining four-fifths.

Success for the proposal could yield a "transformative windfall" of US$5 billion to US$13 billion to be shared by the satellite companies, Patrick Wellington, a Morgan Stanley analyst, said in a May 29 note.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai, speaking at a wireless conference in May about the need for "hot, nasty bad-ass speed" in mobile communications, said the agency would cast a preliminary vote in July on permitting satellite spectrum to be used for new purposes.

That doesn't mean success for Intelsat and SES is assured. A competing proposal is backed by rural mobile carriers. It would let wireless broadband providers serve homes and businesses using the satellite airwaves, but require them to make sure they don't cause interference by using the same frequencies as established receiving dishes nearby.

The FCC may rule by the first half of next year, and Intelsat and SES could offer airwaves for terrestrial use within 18 to 36 months from the time of a final order, Mr Spengler, the Intelsat CEO, said at an investors' conference on May 17.

Intelsat and SES serve more than 90 percent of the market in the airwaves swathe at issue, known as the C Band, and expect other satellite companies to join the consortium they are forming, Mr Spengler added.

Telesat Holdings Inc, another satellite provider operating in the C Band, shows signs of balking. Dan Goldberg, chief executive officer of the closely held provider based in Ottawa, on May 3 told investors that while he agrees with Intelsat and SES on "some basic fundamental points," the company will oppose the idea unless persuaded that "proceeds are in fact going to be distributed in an equitable way." Paris-based Eutelsat Communications SA, with about 5 per cent of the C Band market in North America, intends to join the consortium, its chief executive officer, Rodolphe Belmer, told investors in February.

The proposal's speed to market compares favourably with government-led efforts to change spectrum uses, which can take many years, said Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, part of the Republican majority at the FCC. "This may be something that can really shrink our time frame," Mr O'Rielly said in an interview.

Washington has been eyeing the airwaves for some time. Congress this year told the FCC to study letting commercial wireless services use the frequencies. And in 2016, Democratic FCC chairman Tom Wheeler urged satellite executives to share airwaves with terrestrial services, saying "it is far more practical to get on the train than to be run over by it."

The prospective change, however, leaves broadcasters and cable providers apprehensive that their video programming may encounter interference from the strong terrestrial signals that would use the airwaves.

"Every day, thousands of commercial and public TV and radio stations use so-called 'C-band spectrum' to deliver broadcast programming to tens of millions of listeners and viewers," Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for NCTA - the National Association of Broadcasters trade group, said in an email. "The burden is on wireless carriers to provide the FCC with rigorous, fact-based analysis that demonstrates that any proposal would not threaten interference-free reception of free and local broadcasting." The Internet & Television Association, a trade group, in a May 21 filing asked the FCC to withhold approval until it can show existing services would be protected.

In an FCC filing, Intelsat and SES presented officials with confidential information showing how they would keep video programming pristine. The material explained "intricate methods and tools each company will utilise to groom existing customers out of spectrum coordinated for mobile use," according to the May 23 filing.

Across the US, there could be 25,000 to 30,000 receiving stations that would need modification to safeguard signals, the companies estimate.

Mobile operators, for their part, are eager.

"This band is the largest mid-band spectrum band available for future mobile broadband use and should be a clear commission priority," Meredith Baker, president of CTIA -The Wireless Association, said in an email. Members of the Washington-based group include all four major US wireless carriers: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp. T-Mobile is in the process of trying to buy Sprint. BLOOMBERG

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