ATC: Now let’s see what it can do

Posted in Financials, Globalstar, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 11:30 am by timfarrar

Although we remain intrigued by the timing of yesterday’s announcement of LightSquared’s chipset and device partners, what is now clear is that next year should finally result in the actual commercial deployment of an ATC network, offering both satellite and terrestrial mobile services for the first time. (Although Open Range had deployed a couple of thousand terminals under its agreement with Globalstar prior to the FCC suspending Globalstar’s ATC license, these did not include two-way functionality, and to date no handheld terminals had been produced).

LightSquared now claims to have raised over $2B, which the company expects will see it through to “operational launch and beyond” in the second half of next year. Although it is not clear where the $2B is coming from, and whether (as yet unannounced) vendor financing will form part of that $2B or could be incremental to it, it is certainly the case that with Harbinger apparently injecting funds from a $400M UBS loan in July, converting its reported $430M of debt into equity (as part of this week’s $850M debt refinancing) and presumably investing the proceeds from the sale of half of its Inmarsat stake (for $650M) in LightSquared, the company should have enough money both to pay Inmarsat for the ongoing rebanding of the L-band, and to fund the buildout of its first markets in 2011, an outcome that looked like a distant dream less than a year ago.

Given that there are no significant remaining technical barriers to overcome in deploying their satellite network, and LightSquared has commitments to produce both chipsets and ATC devices from leading manufacturers, it will be interesting to see next year both how the LightSquared network is positioned and what the public reaction is to the service. In particular, will LightSquared’s retail partners attempt to use satellite as a key differentiator, or will they rely just on the LTE offering to compete with Verizon, Clearwire, MetroPCS and others?

In the nearer term, we will also look forward to finding out exactly who these retail partners will be, and whether any of them will make a financial investment in LightSquared itself. In that regard, it appears that T-Mobile is certainly keeping its options open with regard to LightSquared, having filed at the FCC in support of relaxing the ATC gating criteria, which currently require all devices to offer integrated satellite and terrestrial services. Leap Wireless also appears to be looking closely at the ATC opportunity, having initially proposed this relaxation of the gating criteria. Whether T-Mobile’s actions are part of its negotiating strategy with Clearwire, or whether T-Mobile and Leap really are taking a potential investment in LightSquared seriously, remains to be seen.

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