Yesterday at Satellite 2011, Harbinger’s bankers at UBS expressed enormous confidence that LightSquared was “ahead of the pack” in securing partners and in its future prospects. Given the ongoing auction for DBSD, I was not alone in finding that confidence somewhat surprising. However, the document filed by DBSD this morning summarizing the status and results of the marketing process helps to explain why that was the case. MetroPCS (referred to as the Alternative Bidder) had filed a tentative bid last Thursday which was “contingent on the completion of additional due diligence and securing sufficient financing” (because it had been unable to reach an agreement with Harbinger and Solus). This was the point at which LightSquared were forced to announce their deal with Open Range instead of the intended partnership with MetroPCS. However, on Sunday March 13, MetroPCS reached an agreement with Harbinger and Solus to jointly fund the bid, allowing the three companies to make a definitive offer ultimately amounting to $1.475B. This supposed “knock-out” bid was a major factor in allowing UBS to travel to Washington DC on Monday and advertise their confidence in LightSquared.
Unfortunately for Harbinger, late last night DISH made a higher bid of $1.485B for DBSD and secured the support of parent company ICO Global, knocking Harbinger out of the running (although there remains the remote possibility of a further bid). As a result, the plans of LightSquared are now subject to considerable confusion – will it focus on the L-band or will it instead bid for TerreStar?
As I noted last week, there are acknowledged problems with GPS interference in the L-band, which is apparently what forced Harbinger to bid for DBSD. I’m now told that this interference issue may well render LightSquared’s current L-band spectrum (as available under the Phase 1 agreement with Inmarsat) largely unusable in a terrestrial network for many years to come, until filters are fitted as a matter of course to GPS devices (assuming the FCC decides to mandate this). In addition, LightSquared’s Phase 2 L-band spectrum (leased from Inmarsat), which may have less interference problems, will not be available until July 2013. However, TerreStar’s spectrum also has its problems, not least the potential need to negotiate an agreement with DISH as the owner of DBSD for a joint approach to utilize the 2GHz spectrum.
UPDATE: As part of its March 15 GPS Working Group documentation, LightSquared has published full details of its terrestrial spectrum band plans. The Phase 0 spectrum (1 paired 5MHz channel) has its downlink at 1550.2-1555.2MHz. The Phase 1A plan adds another channel with a downlink at 1526.3-1531.2MHz and the Phase 2 plan extends both channels to 2x10MHz, with downlinks at 1526-1536MHz and 1545.2-1555.2MHz. As such, though LightSquared is likely unable to use the Phase 0 spectrum, it might be able to use the second (lower) channel under the Phase 1A plan without causing substantial interference to GPS. The Phase 1A spectrum is expected to be available in February 2012, although under the original Cooperation Agreement a “reasonable delay” of up to 9 months could be added to this date. Whether this timeline for availability is sufficient to support a buildout is unclear.
In the near term, what may overshadow these issues is the status of the $586M loan that LightSquared secured from UBS and JP Morgan in mid February. At the time it was indicated that this loan would bring LightSquared’s available cash up to “about $1 billion”, something that is very important in enabling LightSquared not just to go forward with its planned network buildout, but also to keep paying Inmarsat for rebanding of the L-band spectrum. I had assumed that much of this loan would be spent on the DBSD bid, otherwise it is hard to see why LightSquared would access money at this stage when only a few days before LightSquared had indicated that it was “not going to raise more [money] in the short term”).
The question now is whether this loan has been drawn down and whether LightSquared will be able to continue to spend the money on the L-band rebanding and future network buildout, in view of the challenges the company may face in utilizing its L-band spectrum in the near term. If there are any conditions under which the loan could be recalled, then UBS will have to decide whether its confidence in LightSquared still remains as high as on Monday, or if its exposure is now of more concern. With LightSquared’s current cash burn rate somewhere in excess of $100M per quarter (excluding any terrestrial network buildout costs), this could significantly impact how much time LightSquared has available to secure a partnership.
Next week, LightSquared has indicated it plans to announce “significant news” at CTIA. Will this give some indication of where the company goes from here? Is there a deal with Sprint, T-Mobile or some other partner to announce? Will further disclosure of a partnership with MetroPCS take place, or was that deal limited to a potential 2GHz venture? Many questions remain unanswered, but LightSquared will need to start providing some answers very soon, if it is to move forward with its plans, and meet its promises to the FCC.