U.S. wireless and mobile network operators have invested billions in recent years to ready their networks for 5G. After investing more than $121 billion since 2018 into infrastructure upgrades and modernization projects, operators continue to position to acquire as much spectrum as possible for delivery of new services and for consumer and enterprise applications.
To accommodate the demand, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 2020 ordered the clearing of 300 of the 500 megahertz of highly coveted C-band spectrum over the Continental U.S. licensed to five satellite operators, including Intelsat. The cleared C-band spectrum, ideal for use in 5G networks due to its mix of coverage breadth and bandwidth, would then be made available to wireless operators at auction.
Intelsat was the largest holder of C-band licenses and migrating its share of the spectrum meant squeezing 60 percent of its capacity used mostly by broadcasters into the remaining 40 percent. At the same time, the company had to protect incumbent earth stations pointed at its satellites. For this massive undertaking, the FCC offered incentives to operators capable of meeting accelerated timelines.
The stakes were extremely high. Failure to execute could significantly damage relationships with customers and disrupt their business operations. An inability to meet deadlines would mean not only missing out on incentive opportunities but also losing the spectrum altogether. Cost implications were enormous as well. The FCC offered reimbursement for this very expensive endeavor, but every dollar spent had to be documented via a painstaking process with photos and work orders vetted through third-party clearinghouses and attorneys.
Leveraging the company’s extensive program management capabilities and managed services experience, the Intelsat team went to work to begin the arduous process of seeding new antennas for satellite changes, migrating customers’ services into the upper 40% of the C-band, and installing filters on every feed across the country. Additionally, to reduce the amount of bandwidth required to provide continuity of service for all of Intelsat’s North American programmers, to the company deployed more than 30,000 integrated receiver-decoders (IRDs) at earth stations throughout the country.
The company established a dedicated internal team and identified world-class field service and equipment vendor partners. The team designed a master work-management system, complete with customized processes and systems to capture and analyze progress and electronically track orders to vendors in the field. Multiple quality-control and audit procedures were developed to ensure work was completed on time and documented for reimbursement.
The challenge proved even more daunting than anticipated when it was discovered that earth station registration data did not provide some critical information the Intelsat team needed to perform the work. With no historical relationships with earth station owners, Intelsat first had to initiate a massive data collection effort to determine which customers qualified for migration and ensure pointing could be done accurately – all before any work could be executed.
Applying the company’s rigorous, disciplined, and deadline-oriented approach to project management for its customers and partners around the world, the team ultimately met the first FCC milestone with time to spare, successfully migrating 46 of the largest U.S. cellular operators – with no disruption to their respective businesses – out of the lower 100 MHz and making it available to auction winners. So far, Intelsat has upgraded more than 250 antennas, and filtered another nearly 2,000 more, across 550-plus sites spanning the continental U.S.
The C-band clearing program posed a management challenge unlike many the company had faced in recent memory. By deploying a dedicated team, allocating the necessary resources, and ensuring all stakeholders involved understood the goals and objectives, the people of Intelsat demonstrated their ability to execute against large, complex projects and meet tight deadlines and timeframes with precision and success.