06.10.11

Can the FCC split the baby?

Posted in Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 4:37 pm by timfarrar

As data continues to emerge on the results of the GPS interference testing, it now seems that LightSquared intends to propose that it should initially use the lower part of its L-band spectrum, but that GPS users should be required to fit filters so that after a multi-year sunset period, LightSquared would be able to use the full 40MHz of MSS-ATC spectrum in its terrestrial network. Indeed LightSquared appears to be insistent that “eventually the company intends to use all the spectrum allocated to it by [the] FCC”.

On the other hand, the GPS industry is asserting that “there is no viable technical fix” and the FCC “should focus its efforts on finding [alternative] spectrum that LightSquared can operate in”. The government-chartered NPEF task force has presented a range of potential mitigation options, of which it appears the most plausible is to “limit implementation to lower end of MSS L-band” (i.e. to just 20MHz of the 40MHz of MSS-ATC spectrum that LightSquared has access to under its agreement with Inmarsat).

It therefore seems possible that caught between these conflicting demands, the FCC could choose to split the baby, permitting LightSquared to operate in the lower part of the L-band, while putting off a decision about the upper part of the L-band until considerable further study is undertaken (very likely taking a year or more). However, this would make it much harder for Harbinger to fund the LightSquared buildout, because it already has a $2B+ obligation to Inmarsat for its spectrum lease (the NPV of $115M increasing at 3% p.a.) and clearance costs, plus $1.5B in first lien debt. Unless the lower 20MHz of spectrum was valued at an implausible $1 per MHzPOP, or LightSquared could renegotiate its deal with Inmarsat (which seems unlikely given that LightSquared has just had to pay Inmarsat another $40M to eliminate Inmarsat’s permitted 9 month excusable delay in making the Phase 1 spectrum available), it would be hard to invest at anything close to the $2.5B value that Harbinger puts on LightSquared’s equity. It would also be problematic for the GPS industry, because GPS-augmentation solutions such as John Deere’s Starfire (for precision agriculture) would still be severely affected by LightSquared’s lower band operations. Thus splitting the baby might actually be far from optimal, forcing large costs on at least some parts of the GPS industry, while not enabling the buildout of LightSquared’s network to proceed.

Next week all eyes will be on the June 15 report, in which LightSquared will set out its proposed mitigation strategy. I would expect it to include a proposal for initial operation in the lower part of the L-band without any further restrictions or delay (something which will presumably be resisted by the GPS industry, who will instead likely propose further study, given that LightSquared “failed to deliver test equipment that matches its proposed operations” for the Las Vegas tests), and then propose an aggressive timetable for resolution of issues in the upper band (where the GPS industry will ask that all terrestrial operations be completely ruled out).

UPDATE: OnStar has also now requested that the FCC require additional testing before reaching a final decision to allow LightSquared to commence ATC service.

However, the big question is whether LightSquared will accompany the release of the report with an announcement of a network sharing agreement with Sprint (arguing that it could use capacity from Sprint if necessary while it waits for upper L-band spectrum). This might sound like a plausible proposition, but of course LightSquared would not be able to pay for its buildout without substantial incremental funding. Realistically the best that LightSquared could hope for is an MoU which requires it to obtain more funding and resolve its FCC issues within the next few months (before Sprint starts its Network Vision buildout in Q4).

It is unclear whether Sprint is prepared to get caught in the Congressional crossfire between the GPS industry and LightSquared, at a time when it needs all the support it can get in its attempts to block the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, and that will probably determine whether a deal comes to fruition next week or not. However, given the pressure Harbinger and LightSquared are under at the moment, it is almost certainly essential that they announce a deal with Sprint next week to have any chance of changing perceptions that Harbinger is as doomed as Captain Ahab.

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