01.27.12

Complicated legal arguments…and simple math

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 2:23 pm by timfarrar

Today, the complexities of both the LightSquared and DISH regulatory processes both got even more messy. In the DISH waiver proceeding, AT&T filed an ex parte submission urging the FCC to impose buildout conditions on DISH similar to those imposed on LightSquared (260M POPs within 5 years 9 months), rather than any financial clawback to address the increase in value of the spectrum that a waiver would produce. AT&T also asks for conditions to be imposed on DISH’s 700MHz spectrum in line with the conditions imposed on AT&T’s recent purchase of spectrum from Qualcomm.

This submission is a blatant attempt by AT&T to put a thumb on the scales, as the FCC weighs up the appropriate balance between buildout mandates and clawback of any windfall. The reason for AT&T’s action at this very late stage in the process appears to be that DISH is trying to play off AT&T’s prospective bid against a potential venture with MetroPCS. MetroPCS would certainly be unwilling to commit to a 260M POP buildout, so if the FCC conceded AT&T’s demands, they would be the only game in town and DISH would lose its leverage in price negotiations. We’ll find out soon enough if AT&T’s gambit succeeds, but few would bet against Charlie Ergen’s poker playing skills after the events of the last year.

In the even more complex LightSquared process, the FCC has today issued a Public Notice establishing a Pleading Cycle in respect of LightSquared’s December 2011 Petition for Declaratory Ruling, which sought to establish that GPS receivers were not entitled to interference protection. This Pleading Cycle, with comments due by Feb 27 and replies by March 13, almost certainly pushes back an FCC ruling on the LightSquared testing into the second half of March, because the FCC would want to deal with all of these issues simultaneously. As a result, attention is now likely to be focused around April 1 (appropriately enough All Fools Day), when LightSquared is due to make the next interest payment on its debt and another ~$30M payment to Inmarsat.

The most intriguing issue in the Public Notice is the FCC’s subtle attempt to decouple the resolution of GPS interference from LightSquared’s January 2011 waiver, suggesting that any provision of the “terrestrial portion of service” is subject to the “Interference-Resolution Process” which “to date…has not been completed”:

On January 26, 2011, the International Bureau granted LightSquared Subsidiary LLC (a subsidiary of LightSquared Inc., hereinafter also referred to as LightSquared) a conditional waiver of the ATC “integrated service” rule, thereby establishing certain conditions that LightSquared must meet before it can provide the terrestrial portion of service contemplated by its proposed integrated satellite and terrestrial 4G wireless network. The Conditional Waiver Order prescribed an Interference-Resolution Process by which LightSquared would work with the GPS community to resolve concerns raised about potential interference to GPS receivers and devices that might result from LightSquared’s planned terrestrial operations. As a condition of commencing such commercial operations, the Conditional Waiver Order required that this process first be “completed,” a term defined as the point at which “the Commission, after consultation with NTIA, concludes that the harmful interference concerns have been resolved and sends a letter to LightSquared stating that the process is complete.”

The reason for this is because LightSquared has indicated that, in the event it was blocked from operating, it would withdraw the January 2011 waiver application and claim it had the right to operate a dual-mode (satellite-terrestrial) service under the conditions of the FCC’s 2005 rulings. While that might not be economically viable (or practical), the FCC would presumably then be forced to step in to protect GPS and thereby supposedly “infringe” on LightSquared’s claimed “property rights”. The Petition for Declaratory Ruling is also an attempt to eviscerate the interference protections contained in the 2005 rulings (referred to as CFR 25.255) and thereby make the supposed infringement of LightSquared’s rights all the more obvious.

Thus, from this Public Notice, it does appear that the FCC is at least cognizant of LightSquared’s legal strategy, and is likely (as I predicted) to ultimately rule that the Interference-Resolution Process should be prolonged (and extended to cover GPS receiver/interference standards) and that in the interim LightSquared will be prohibited from commencing any terrestrial operations. LightSquared is apparently contending that this wouldn’t constitute a MAC on its debt covenants, but I suspect that’s an argument some of the debtholders (including Mr. Icahn) will want to test in court.

All this makes for a very complicated set of legal arguments, but one additional piece of information did emerge today that sheds some light on the big picture of why it has been so hard for spectrum holders to monetize their assets, and why the FCC has come in for so much well deserved criticism. DSL Prime is reporting that growth in mobile data usage is running at less than half the level predicted by Cisco and that the FCC staff “demanded their name be taken off” the FCC’s October 2011 demand forecast, because they “didn’t believe the claims in this paper”. However, with so many gullible journalists and investors buying into the idea of a (manufactured) “spectrum crisis” rather than a “spectrum bubble“, perhaps its a bit less surprising that LightSquared has been able to raise over $2.5B of investment in the last 18 months.

4 Comments »

  1. FCC Asks for Public Input on Lightsquared | Techno Magazine | Daily Technology News Magazine said,

    January 31, 2012 at 4:08 am

    [...] This submission is a blatant attempt by AT&T to put a thumb on the scales, opines satellite consultant Tim Farrar. [...]

  2. AT&T & Dish fight over spectrum, but will either build a network? — Broadband News and Analysis said,

    February 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    [...] Farrar wrote in his blog: This submission is a blatant attempt by AT&T to put a thumb on the scales, as the FCC weighs [...]

  3. AT&T & Dish fight over spectrum, but will either build a network? | TechDiem.com said,

    February 4, 2012 at 1:19 am

    [...] Farrar wrote in his blog: This submission is a blatant attempt by ATT to put a thumb on the scales, as the FCC weighs up the [...]

  4. TMF Associates MSS blog » That’s all folks!…but awkward questions remain said,

    February 7, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    [...] than waiting until March for comments on LightSquared’s Petition for Declaratory Ruling, the FCC now appears [...]

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