03.08.11

No Such Network, or a Sprint to the finish?

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, LightSquared, Operators, Spectrum, TerreStar at 5:57 pm by timfarrar

According to Broadband Reports, “things have changed significantly” with Nokia Siemens Networks’ $7B contract to build the LightSquared network, and NSN is now “out of favor” because LightSquared is planning to work with Sprint and its contractors Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Samsung. This appears to confirm my suspicions of a couple of weeks ago, when I noted that NSN was being lukewarm about the LightSquared network build and appeared to have suspended its tower permitting and siting work.

This report confirms MetroPCS’s interest in the 2GHz spectrum controlled by DBSD and TerreStar, although it is unclear whether MetroPCS would bid alone for TerreStar or partner with Solus and Harbinger in a joint bid for both DBSD and TerreStar. It also indicates that a joint build (i.e. spectrum pooling agreement) may be undertaken for the L-band and 2GHz spectrum in conjunction with the Sprint network upgrade.

Of course if Sprint did collaborate with LightSquared then that would “allow for LightSquared to deploy its network much quicker” and at lower cost, because the two companies would work together to develop and deploy cell sites. Sprint also appears to be looking at securing options other than relying on Clearwire for its 4G network, which would presumably mean having at least an option to purchase capacity from LightSquared. However, as I noted last week, the challenge here will be in the financing of the network. There is very unlikely to be any reason for Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Samsung to grant vendor financing to LightSquared, something that was widely expected from NSN. If Harbinger is to fund part of the planned TerreStar/DBSD bid in addition to the LightSquared buildout, then that would be even more of a stretch for its resources.

The most fascinating question is whether Sprint would commit to a joint buildout with LightSquared regardless of the progress of its discussions with T-Mobile and Clearwire and before a resolution of the current GPS interference testing. My initial view on hearing news of the T-Mobile/Sprint negotiations was that these could hold up any decision by Sprint. On the other hand, that news could have been leaked by someone trying to derail a Sprint-LightSquared deal. Certainly Clearwire would suffer from such a deal, and its share price has been on a rollercoaster over the last week, as differing portrayals of Sprint’s intentions have emerged.

Given both the buildout obligations that LightSquared is committed to, and the timescales on which Sprint plans to begin its upgrades, any deal would certainly have to happen very soon, most likely before the resolution of either the T-Mobile/Sprint merger discussions or the current GPS interference testing. If LightSquared has basically fallen out with NSN as Broadband Reports implies, then it looks like it is putting all of its eggs in one basket with Sprint and this may now be the “cornerstone” on which LightSquared’s nationwide LTE ambitions will rest. As a result, it will be very interesting to see how much of a stake Harbinger plans to take in the proposed bid for the DBSD/TerreStar spectrum, and therefore whether that remains a viable backup plan.

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