Will Clearwire provide a valuation benchmark for ATC spectrum?

Posted in Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Spectrum at 8:40 pm by timfarrar

So news has finally broken that Clearwire is selling 40MHz of its spectrum, as we surmised back in May. However, the valuation range cited is relatively wide ($2.5B to $5B) representing $0.20 to $0.40 per MHzPOP, and Verizon (which was said to be one “potential buyer” of the spectrum along with AT&T, T-Mobile, Time Warner Cable and Sprint Nextel) has now denied it is bidding. It also hardly seems plausible that AT&T would be bidding for spectrum it was forced by the FCC to relinquish just a few years ago. As a result, the release of this information seems like it could well be an attempt to encourage bidding if the auction is not going too briskly, with “potential buyers” rather than actual bidders being listed to create an appearance of higher demand.

If the end result is towards the lower end of the quoted range, then that would clearly be a negative sign for spectrum valuations – falling far short of the $0.50 per MHzPOP valuation suggested by Clearwire and some analysts back in May and coming close to the $0.17 per MHzPOP paid by Clearwire when it acquired spectrum from AT&T/BellSouth in February 2007. If that’s the case, then it would imply that the value of this spectrum has hardly changed in the last three years, despite the supposed “spectrum crisis” that has been widely discussed.

Of course, the headline price for Clearwire’s spectrum is not the only factor that needs to be taken into account when considering this as a valuation benchmark for other spectrum bands. In particular, around 60% of Clearwire’s spectrum (in the EBS part of the band) was acquired under lease agreements, and though some of these are partly prepaid, others will require substantial future payments (totaling $5B over the next 30 years). Thus if Clearwire sells mostly owned spectrum for close to $0.20 per MHzPOP, then the implied spectrum valuation for other bands would be rather lower than if it sold a mix of leased and owned spectrum.

Nevertheless, a low valuation benchmark might well make fundraising more challenging for ATC spectrum holders. LightSquared noted in its presentation at Satcon today that it acquired its spectrum for the “low cost” of $0.20 per MHzPOP, and while one can argue that the propagation characteristics of LightSquared’s lower frequency L-band spectrum make it more valuable than Clearwire’s 2.5GHz spectrum band, mobile operators who are seeking spectrum simply for fill-in 4G coverage in densely populated markets may not necessarily see it that way. LightSquared also has ATC-specific risks to consider, related to the aggressive buildout commitments it made to the FCC back in March and the need for rebanding in the L-band (with the associated substantial payments to Inmarsat). As a result it remains to be seen whether the investments that Harbinger has made to acquire LightSquared’s spectrum will still be seen as a low cost at the end of the Clearwire auction.

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