C-Band Satellite gives way to better cell service

It’s beginning to look like the original consumer satellite TV technology is on its way out. You may remember the days of the “big ugly dish,” those gigantic black dishes found in the homes of the well-heeled folks back in the 1980s. Those dishes paved the way for consumer satellite services like DIRECTV and DISH, but they’ve been on the decline for years now. It seems like the final days may be closer at hand than we thought.

According to Telecompetitor, the FCC is looking to take away some of the spectrum used by those dishes and give it over to companies looking to expand into 5G. This is a smart move that’s going to benefit a lot of people. Let’s take a look why.

C what I did there?

These older dishes use a part of the spectrum known as the C band. C-Band broadcasting is between 3700 and 4200MHz. That puts it not much further up the spectrum than today’s cellular services, which are between 600 and 2100MHz. It’s also far below so-called “millimeter-wave” services in the Ka band of 26.5-40GHz.

C-Band broadcasting was originally designed for satellite communications. Originally, broadcasters used it to share video and to distribute services like HBO and ESPN to smaller cable companies. However, C-Band requires a larger antenna than newer technologies like Ku-Band and Ka-Band broadcasting and that meant the cost to implement it was too high for most people.

However, starting in the 1980s, some consumers started putting up their own C-Band dishes. Nothing on C-Band satellite was encrypted, so people found they could get a lot of free programming if they were willing to work for it. It took a lot of re-aiming and a knowledge of what channels were on what satellite. It was also incredibly expensive.

The days of C-Band satellite ended in the early 1990s when consumer satellite services started. With the blessing of the government, companies like DIRECTV, USSB, and DISH started offering satellite services with a stationary dish that most people could install themselves.

C-Band in the 21st century

As high-speed internet blanketed the country, the need for C-Band satellite services continued to drop. In the last five years, a lot of video services that were provided by C-Band started moving to IP distribution, in other words streaming. Starting with primitive connections on dedicated boxes, we’ve seen an explosion of streaming video that’s affordable and easy to get. Given the choice between installing an app on a streaming box and installing a giant dish that needs frequent maintenance, it’s pretty obvious which choice people went for.

Which brings us to today

The FCC has been working with the remaining major C-Band operators — there are only five — to free up 420MHz of spectrum in the C-Band for use with 5G cellular. The operators will be compensated for costs relating to changing frequencies and all five major operators have agreed to the plan.

This will give cellular operators the ability to bid on that freed-up spectrum and it is expected to be assigned by 2023. Using these frequencies will give cellular operators a lot more flexibility.

5G for everyone

5G technology will revolutionize the way we communicate, and the change is already with us. AT&T and other cellular carriers are using spectrum they already have to give massive speed increases to customers with compatible phones. I think we all expected to see more 5G phones this year, and hopefully we will by the end of the year as some of the surprises that came this spring start to diminish.

Using C-Band spectrum instead of or in addition to millimeter-wave spectrum will make it easier for cell carriers to put that 5G services in people’s hands. Millimeter-wave technology is so different from today’s cell service that it’s never expected to roll out nationwide. It will certainly dominate in densely populated areas. In suburbs and rural areas it simply may be too expensive to put in. Because of the high frequencies (which require higher broadcast power) carriers will need to provide towers much more tightly spaced.

When cell providers use C-Band spectrum, more existing towers can provide cell service in more areas. It’s going to take several years for it to be available to customers (think 2025 or later).  Still, it’s still good news for today.

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AT&T’s 5G network is available today. Throughout the country, more people enjoy high speeds and clear calls than ever before. If you’re ready to move to AT&T or if you need an upgraded phone, call the experts at Signal Connect! Their white glove service means we’ll treat you like a star from the moment you call. Why wait? Call 888-233-7563 during East Coast business hours, or fill out the form below and an expert will call you!

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.