DISH plays it cool, Sprint changes its tune…

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 11:03 am by timfarrar

Last week we saw various filings from wireless companies and the CTIA on DISH’s transfer application/ATC waiver request for DBSD and TerreStar, which mostly just served to highlight the interests of the different wireless operators. MetroPCS asked the FCC to force DISH to provide a detailed business plan before considering the transfer application (in other words to do a deal with them rather than wait for a decision on the AT&T/TMO merger). Sprint asked the FCC to condition the transfer on reimbursement of Sprint’s relocation expenses, and to impose the same buildout conditions on DISH as the FCC imposed on LightSquared in exchange for the waiver (thereby potentially forcing DISH to pay Sprint to host their buildout). Meanwhile the CTIA asked the FCC to defer any decision on a waiver until a more general rulemaking proceeding has been completed (thus allowing the wireless operators to find out what will happen to the AWS-3 spectrum and whether the 1755-1780MHz block will be available for pairing). Ironically the CTIA cited potential interference with the G-block PCS spectrum as a reason for delay, when Sprint (who owns this spectrum) didn’t even mention it in their submission.

DISH’s formal response is due tomorrow (Oct 27), but an ex parte submission and an interview with Charlie Ergen both highlight that DISH is going to make sure that the FCC is under more pressure to conclude this proceeding (and finally take the first step towards its goal of making more spectrum available) than DISH is. Indeed DISH would clearly prefer to wait until a decision is reached on the AT&T/TMO merger, because if the proposed merger is blocked then more potential partnerships would open up. In my view, the most likely partnership would then be with AT&T, which has come close to a deal to buy DISH in the past, and would be able to use both DISH’s 2GHz MSS-ATC spectrum and its 700MHz E-block spectrum (in conjunction with the MediaFLO spectrum that AT&T plans to buy from Qualcomm).

However, the FCC still has to avoid giving DISH a similar spectrum windfall to LightSquared and if DISH is to avoid having to give up part of the spectrum for reauction, it will have to come up with some creative way to reimburse the Treasury financially for any windfall (e.g. offering to pay the difference between what it paid for DBSD and TerreStar and the amount the adjacent J-block 2020-25/2175-80MHz spectrum sells for in any future auction).

Today, it seems that Sprint has rowed back somewhat on its implied threat on October 7 to force Clearwire into bankruptcy, announcing a “non-binding memorandum of understanding to work together” on ensuring that the two companies’ LTE networks will be interoperable. While this is only a limited first step towards Sprint providing concrete backing to Clearwire in 2013 and beyond, it appears designed to allow Clearwire to go out and attempt both to raise new funding and to secure other partnerships ahead of the early December deadline for Clearwire’s next interest payment on its debt. In the short term the most plausible new partnership would be with MetroPCS, which recently said it is “uniquely positioned” to do something with Clearwire, though it is unclear how much of a financial commitment this would actually involve on MetroPCS’s part.

Yesterday Sprint also indicated that it plans to deploy a 2x10MHz LTE Advanced network in its 800MHz iDEN spectrum, which is the subject of today’s MoU on interoperability. By using this additional spectrum for LTE (rather than CDMA as had been previously stated), Sprint would be able to deliver LTE across a mix of low (800), medium (1900) and higher (2500) frequency spectrum bands depending on the population density in a given area, with the Clearwire network providing supplementary capacity in the densest urban areas. If other wireless operators adopt a similar model, then Clearwire could become a wholesaler to multiple major carriers (e.g. Verizon as a supplement to its LTE deployment which is currently at 700MHz and will later extend to AWS), as would be needed if Clearwire is to build a wholesale business on the back of covering at most 100M-150M POPs. Nevertheless, it will take a minimum of several years before a company like Verizon or AT&T would realistically need that additional capacity and so Clearwire still has a lot of work to do (and a lot more money to raise, now that its WiMAX cashflows are likely to diminish) to pull off its transition to a multi-network wholesale provider of urban capacity, not least in creating an ecosystem around TD-LTE in the 2.5GHz band.

However, at least Clearwire appears to have a plausible plan for how to move forward, unlike LightSquared, which has now basically been written off by MetroPCS and (after today’s announcement) implicitly by Sprint as well. On that basis, it looks like Harbinger’s write-down of its LightSquared investment at the end of September will end up being only the first of several such actions. Its also very hard to see how investors in LightSquared’s first lien debt believe that they will be able to realize even 50 cents on the dollar in bankruptcy, when the most likely outcome is that there will be no purchasers for LightSquared’s spectrum at any price, because the regulatory risks will not be resolved and the ongoing Inmarsat lease obligation potentially outweighes the residual value of LightSquared’s spectrum assets.

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