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Published on 23 Jun 2020

5G, C-Band and how to optimize new affiliate distribution models in the USA

Tim Jackson, Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing, the Americas

As I sat down to write this blog, a TV Technology newsletter popped into my inbox with a story that’s directly relevant: FCC Speeds Up C-Band Clearing for 5G. In summary, the news item explains that Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman, has announced the acceleration of opening the C-Band spectrum for 5G services. All eligible satellite operators have agreed to this new timeline in exchange for a speeding up of relocation payments.

Let’s step back and look at how television distribution evolved in the US in terms of C-Band distribution to cable operators throughout the country. At one point, operators in the thousands were downlinking C-band-delivered services. Inevitably, there was then a lot of consolidation that occurred. This was combined with a move from coaxial cable to optical fiber and then the internet and IP-based services.

What we then ended up with was some very, very large MSOs like Comcast, Charter and Cox, Cablevision (which became Altice) as examples. We also saw the emergence of two DTH providers in DirecTV and Dish Network as well as telco providers like Verzion FIOS and AT&T U-verse.

Industry consolidation

A big industry consolidation saw these companies able to deliver services to consumers via fiber (or DTH) and therefore to consolidate the number of headends. So we ended up with the large providers representing the vast majority of subscribers. These are now referred to as Multichannel Video Programming Distributors, or MVPDs, a term that includes all  manner of consumer-delivered services including cable, DTH, telco and some streaming providers.

Larger MVPD’s have tended to end up with two “super” headend sites with geographic diversity. That meant there was a huge increase in the ability to deliver channels to these sites via fiber. This left C-Band satellite to feed the smaller remaining cable operators. There are still a lot of them but the number of customers each serves can be quite small.

The legacy major programmers still have to serve those sites but the smaller ones are very carefully looking at who they do affiliate deals with. We are finding with a lot of our customers that we’re able to deliver to these main locations by either fiber or internet delivery. There are technology alternatives now that weren’t previously available.

FCC confidence with frequency change

This is why the FCC and phone companies were confident in making their bid to take some of these C-Band frequencies for 5G. They reasoned that the market can operate in two fifths of current capacity. The satellite operators by and large agreed with that; they didn’t put up a huge fight. They initially gave up 100Mhz then 200Mhz and eventually 300Mhz.

Where we are now is that there is C-Band capability to deliver some video services but a lot of them are now delivered terrestrially. We’re also looking at how we can deliver to those smaller locations without the need for direct links but rather using public internet, albeit as a managed service to control quality of service.

A couple of years ago we launched a channel with a major cable operator, delivering the channel to them for the first time over the public internet. What started as a rarity is now commonplace, and we deliver channels to many MVPD’s in this manner. There are now suitable technologies that can take advantage of the increasingly robust public internet, not least our Globecast XN service, which is fully managed.

Given the huge number of channels who already work with us, we are also partnering with other internet and fiber-based distribution technology suppliers (more news of this soon) so that we have a portfolio of affiliate distribution technologies available.

Terrestrial distribution and market crossover

There’s a lot of crossover in this market and these are what one could term “friendly competitors”. We are working particularly closely with several customers at the moment on satellite replacement projects. Some are considering getting out of satellite entirely and reaching all of their affiliates terrestrially. But the mix will vary with some wanting to get out of satellite entirely and quickly while for others it will be a move over time.

However, I don’t think we will ever see the complete demise of C-Band video distribution. There are regulatory reasons (aircraft radar use of nearby spectrum being the key one) that means C-Band distribution for media services is very likely to stay. The move to terrestrial alternatives was already occurring regardless of the 5G/C-Band issue and will now be accelerated because of it.

Relationships with key players

We have relationships with all the key players to manage this process completely and as things scale we, as a media services supplier, manage the error reports, the calls from affiliates, make sure that the logs are kept properly, that advertising and channel promos are correctly inserted and so on. The bigger MPVDs and DTH suppliers want us to be involved because they want a single point of contact for multiple channels. This market move dovetails with the services that we have developed and the skillsets that we have evolved over many, many years. It’s now a question of looking at C-Band as one of the tools in the toolbox rather than the tool. So, get in touch and we can help you to understand the options and the best solution for your business.