License, License, Who’s Got the License?

Whether earth stations are FCC licensees at issue in C-band spectrum flap
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WASHINGTON — To pay or not to pay? That is the question.

There is a difference of opinion within the wireless community about whether or not satellite earth stations that broadcast and cable operators use to receive network programming are Federal Communications Commission licensees — and even the agency doesn’t seem to be sure of the answer.

Even the FCC doesn't seem to be sure whether the earth stations cable operators and broadcasters use to receive satellite signals are agency licensees. 

Even the FCC doesn't seem to be sure whether the earth stations cable operators and broadcasters use to receive satellite signals are agency licensees. 

It’s an important question, because if the earth stations are viewed as licensees, then they have spectrum rights that can be relinquished for payouts in the C-band spectrum reformat the FCC is planning. Television stations received such payouts for relinquishing spectrum in the 2016 broadcast incentive auction.

Cellphone provider T-Mobile’s proposal for freeing up C-band spectrum for 5G anticipates such earth station payouts as a way to incentivize clearing more of the 500 Megahertz of spectrum in the band. The plan offered up by wireless rival Verizon Communications does not.

T-Mobile had said the earth stations are definitely licensees. Verizon and some others say, no way.

Verizon has pointed out that broadcasters and cable operators don’t pay license fees for the earth stations, but T-Mobile noted that neither do noncommercial FM stations, which are definitely licensees.

Verizon said that while earth stations can register with the FCC and thus gain interference protections, that doesn’t make them licensees, and many earth stations haven’t registered at all. Verizon also said that, taken to its logical extension, saying that receive-only stations are licensed operators would mean that TV sets and radios would be licensed as well.

T-Mobile, though, as part of the C-band proceeding, said the FCC has effectively required all earth station operators in the C-band to register to protect any rights that may be affected by the proceeding, eliminating Verizon’s claim that registration is not required. T-Mobile has also echoed the argument from ACA Connects, which represents smaller, independent cable operators, that they are instead “fundamental” to transmissions.

It will be up to the FCC to decide how to treat earth stations. It has signaled that it welcomes input as to their regulatory status.

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