03.26.12

Negative equity…

Posted in Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Spectrum at 6:27 pm by timfarrar

Today news has emerged that Harbinger posted a near 30% decline in its flagship fund in February, due to a writedown of the value of its LightSquared equity investment by “outside auditors”. This comes on top of writedown of its LightSquared investment late last year, which led to the fund declining 47% in 2011, after a 59% cut in the value of its LightSquared holdings.

At the end of January 2012, Harbinger reportedly valued LightSquared’s equity at $1.5B, implying that prior to the 2011 markdown it was valued at ~$3.65B, for a total LightSquared enterprise value of perhaps $6B, given the amount of additional funds that had been raised. The new valuation being put on LightSquared’s equity is not stated, but can be deduced from the fact that in January Harbinger’s largest fund reportedly had total assets of $2.4B, of which $1.07B was LightSquared debt and equity. If the LightSquared equity component was ~$1B, then a ~30% writedown in the fund’s overall value could equate to as much as a 70%-75% writedown in the value of LightSquared’s equity. In other words, LightSquared’s equity may now be valued at less than $500M by Harbinger’s outside auditors.

While this valuation may soon be irrelevant once LightSquared files for bankruptcy, one interesting side effect is that the cut in the value of Harbinger’s fund appears to make it very likely that Mr. Falcone is no longer a billionaire, as was indicated by Forbes just a few weeks ago. The Forbes calculation came just prior to the February writedown, and given that Mr. Falcone’s wealth moves very much in line with the value of Harbinger’s fund (because as he told Vanity Fair last summer “I have always kept the bulk of my money, and I mean the bulk of my money, in the fund”), the 30% writedown seems all but certain to have cost Mr. Falcone more than $100M of the $1.1B that Forbes calculated he was worth last month.

03.24.12

Lies, damned lies and statistics…

Posted in Aeronautical, Financials, Services at 7:26 am by timfarrar

This week it was quite astonishing to see a Wall St Journal article hyping the in-flight passenger communications market in advance of Gogo’s planned IPO on NASDAQ, by highlighting incorrect statistics from In-Stat about the size of the opportunity. In particular the WSJ article states:

Currently about 8% of passengers use the service, up from 4% at the end of 2010, according to In-Stat, a research and consulting firm. That likely will reach 10% of passengers by the end of this year, In-Stat says.

Gogo’s amended S-1, filed on Wednesday, gives specific data for the take-rate on Gogo-equipped planes (nearly 90% of the market in the US), noting that it remained constant at 4.7% in both 2010 and 2011. Underlying usage is increasing, but the usage figures were distorted in late 2010 by a large sponsorship from Google (around $7M) which offered free access for 6 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. I’ve tried to back out the estimated quarterly evolution of Gogo’s revenues and take rate over the last three years, and as shown in the diagram below, the take rate at the end of 2011 was only just over 5%, and on current trends it will take several years to reach the 8% that In-Stat is wrongly suggesting is the take rate at present, let alone the 10% take rate In-Stat projects for the end of 2012.

Of course In-Stat’s projections of the in-flight communications market have been miles off all along. Last October, In-Stat claimed that “in-flight Wi-Fi revenue is expected to grow from about $225 million in 2011 to over $1.5 billion in 2015″. In reality, Gogo’s in-flight passenger WiFi revenues were just over $80M in 2011 and total passenger spending on in-flight connectivity services worldwide was only about $100M last year (most international services are supported by Inmarsat, who said on their recent results call that passenger connectivity generated between $2M and $3M of wholesale revenues in 2011). Surprisingly, Gogo even quotes an In-Stat forecast in its S-1 stating that “in-flight internet usage is expected to increase rapidly over the next five years, from approximately 15.6 million North American sessions in 2011 to 96.9 million by 2015″. However, with Gogo having only had 9M sessions in 2011, it is inconceivable that there could have been more than ~10M sessions in North America last year.

In this context, it is very surprising that the WSJ decided to quote In-Stat’s data without verifying it against the information in Gogo’s public filings. It is also worrying, with Gogo’s IPO set to take place in the near future, if potential investors take the WSJ article at face value and have a misleading impression about the current state of the in-flight communications market.

03.21.12

Is the FCC’s NPRM designed to fail?

Posted in ICO/DBSD, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 11:48 am by timfarrar

After today’s FCC Open Meeting there is a lot of speculation about the content of the 2GHz NPRM and NOI which is expected to emerge very shortly. The FCC indicated that it would reallocate the entire 40MHz of spectrum (2000-2020MHz uplink/2180-2200MHz downlink) to terrestrial services, redesignating it as the AWS-4 band. Many have assumed that this means that DISH would secure unlimited terrestrial rights across the whole band, with no givebacks, but the FCC was careful to indicate in the press conference afterwards that “flexibility applies across the whole band” but not that DISH will get flexibility across the entire 40MHz.

UPDATE: The NPRM has now been released and it appears that there is no definitive requirement for DISH to give back any spectrum, and it would simply be allocated terrestrial licenses nationally in exchange for a buildout criteria of 30% of the population within 3 years (not dissimilar to the 100M POPs agreed to by LightSquared) and 70% of the population in each economic area within 7 years (a somewhat less onerous requirement than LightSquared). Though the possibility is raised that DISH will move up by 5MHz and possibly even give up another 5MHz of uplink spectrum, there is no mention of a larger amount of spectrum being returned to the FCC in exchange for these terrestrial rights, suggesting that Charlie Ergen has played a stunningly good hand of poker to achieve such a result. Of course, it would not be in the least bit surprising to see accusations of a windfall emerge, just as they did with LightSquared.

The FCC has also accompanied the NPRM with an NOI, which proposes a “variation of the AWS-4 band plan” intended to “extend the AWS-1 and PCS spectrum with 65MHz of usable bandwidth”. This alternate plan involves converting the MSS uplinks to downlink spectrum, so that the entire 1995-2025MHz band would be additional PCS downlink spectrum. In exchange the MSS licensee could be granted access to the 1695-1710MHz band which would be paired with 2180-2200MHz as an AWS extension band. This hardly seems to be something that DISH would be keen on, given that it would involve defining another non-standard band class, and would not be compatible with the existing 2GHz satellite services, which DISH might at some point want to explore in Europe.

What is striking is that the FCC’s proposals are hard to reconcile with the requirement in the payroll tax bill back in February that the FCC should identify a “additional 15MHz of contiguous spectrum” to be auctioned, which is why I had assumed the NOI would propose that DISH gave up 10MHz of spectrum and moved its uplinks up by 5MHz into the 2020-25MHz J-block spectrum, as I indicated back in February.

In this context it is hard to see why the FCC bothered with the NOI, unless it is to use this to put more pressure on DISH to give up part of its uplink spectrum. I had guessed that the NOI would be the FCC’s preferred outcome and so NPRM would propose far more unfavorable terms for DISH. In other words, the NPRM would be “designed to fail” in order to drive all parties to a solution which would free up a greater amount of spectrum for auction.

Now we will have to see how commentators react to the NPRM. Could further pressure be brought to bear over the potential windfall, leading to a proposal that DISH gives up an extra 5MHz of uplink spectrum and create the 15MHz block of spectrum for the FCC? If not then the FCC will presumably have to look elsewhere for spectrum to meet the Congressional mandate, unless it perhaps claimed that it is not possible to auction the H-block due to interference concerns in the 1915-1920MHz band, and so the 1995-2010MHz block would meet this mandate. More importantly, the FCC appears to be betting that DISH will actually build out a network to introduce competition to the US wireless market, and so if the end result (after the November election) is a takeover bid from AT&T, it will be interesting to see what attitude the FCC takes to such a bid. If that occurs, and goes through without any further givebacks, then the FCC might very well be seen to have failed in its attempts to maximize the value of spectrum for the public interest. On the other hand, perhaps that could be the point at which an additional 5MHz of spectrum might be given up.

FURTHER UPDATE: As an aside, the NOI doesn’t appear to do much for LightSquared’s hopes of creating substantial incremental value for its Crown Castle lease in the 1670-75MHz block. LightSquared is apparently busy trying to extend its financial runway, but it may now be more difficult to avoid the looming financial crunch at the end of the second quarter of 2012, when LightSquared must repay a roughly $300M loan to its creditors.

03.15.12

Extend and pretend…

Posted in Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 1:54 pm by timfarrar

Bizarrely enough, the price of LightSquared’s debt has been increasing over the last week, as the company failed to file for bankruptcy in advance of the termination of their agreement with Sprint, which is expected to come today, and LightSquared hired lawyers to sue the government for compensation, once their ATC license is revoked by the FCC. The primary reason for this delay appears to be that major investors (Icahn/Appaloosa/Beal, who may hold as much as $500M-$600M in face value of the $1.6B in first lien debt) are sitting on the sidelines, apparently unable to decide what they would do if they forced LightSquared into bankruptcy, while UBS (who may still hold $300M-$400M of the first lien debt) certainly do not want a bankruptcy (because then they would probably become a target for litigation).

As I understand it, if LightSquared continue to pay the interest on their debt (of which ~$50M in cash is due on April 1) then a two-thirds vote of debtholders would be needed to force the company into bankruptcy, and so I now expect that LightSquared will probably make the interest payment due at the end of this month. Once Sprint return $65M to LightSquared after their agreement is terminated, and with payments no longer being made to Inmarsat, LightSquared will then still have over $200M in cash on its balance sheet at the end of the first quarter, allowing LightSquared to continue to pretend (for potentially the rest of this year) that they can succeed with a lawsuit against the FCC or obtain a spectrum swap from the government. The only large near term outstanding payment is the repayment of around $300M due at the end of June on LightSquared’s holding company loan, and LightSquared are suggesting that the sale of their terrestrial spectrum leases will be enough to cover this repayment (though that assumes both a favorable proposal from the FCC next week and a lot of interest in the 1670-75MHz spectrum).

Of course if LightSquared do drag this situation out for so long, then the potential recovery for investors may be considerably less than I originally anticipated. LightSquared appears unlikely to challenge the termination of its deal with Sprint, thereby writing off $236M that was advanced to Sprint last year, and may also allow its deal with Inmarsat to expire on April 20, thereby preventing any deployment of a terrestrial network in their L-band spectrum in the future and potentially giving up the $490M paid to Inmarsat so far. In addition, there may be little or no cash left on the balance sheet, limiting any recovery and perhaps even raising the possibility of DIP financing being needed for a lengthy bankruptcy. Thus its hard to see why investors would regard a delay in a bankruptcy filing as a positive development for the company.

In the meantime, LightSquared also continues to have bad luck with its satellite, after the new SkyTerra-1 satellite suffered a lengthy outage last week, leaving its existing satellite customers (over 200K terminals) without service from March 7 to March 11. While the satellite does not appear to be damaged, this event will undoubtedly be exploited to raise further doubts about whether customers could rely on the LightSquared satellite for service, assuming the second satellite remains a ground spare rather than being launched into orbit.

This development may also make it harder to come up with an alternative satellite-only business plan to preserve the LightSquared business while the FCC considers whether to allow terrestrial use in the L-band at some point in the distant future, after a lengthy transition period to allow GPS and MSS terminals to be upgraded.

However, it was already difficult to envisage such an outcome, when the majority of panelists on the spectrum panel I moderated this week at the Satellite 2012/MSUA-9 conference estimated that it would take 15-30 years before any terrestrial network could be deployed in the L-band MSS spectrum, beyond the end of life of the SkyTerra-1 satellite.

Things left unsaid…

Posted in Aeronautical, Broadband, Inmarsat, Maritime, Operators, Services, VSAT at 12:37 pm by timfarrar

The biggest news of this week’s Satellite 2012 show was only hinted at in the background, with many elements of the announcement (which I’m told was originally scheduled for Monday March 12) apparently delayed while the final details are worked out. Panasonic hinted at their role in this deal on the in-flight connectivity panel, stating that they would be investing “more than any other player in the aeronautical sector” in a new network, while Inmarsat backpeddled on their recent aggressive approach to potential Global Xpress partners, by indicating that they would allow GX maritime distribution partners to keep their own VSAT services rather than being forced to resell Inmarsat’s XpressLink Ku-band service for the next 2-3 years.

What has shaken up the industry is that Intelsat apparently planned to announce additional elements of their global Ku-band maritime and aeronautical service, using new spot beam Ku-band satellites in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific ocean regions. Although Intelsat did issue a press release on Monday, highlighting their focus on mobility, this largely reiterated existing commitments, and omitted both new satellite plans (including IS-29, which is expected to be a high capacity satellite in the Atlantic, and will likely be built by Boeing) and Intelsat’s anchor tenant(s). More details on both of these elements are expected soon. Panasonic will apparently be the anchor aeronautical tenant for this new network and is expected to make an upfront commitment (for purchase of capacity) to help fund Intelsat’s satellite program which could exceed $100M. Many maritime VSAT providers are also looking actively at potential use of the network, as an alternative to Inmarsat’s Global Xpress project, because Intelsat have promised to operate purely as a wholesale capacity provider, rather than competing with their own customers as Inmarsat is doing. The cost of Intelsat’s Ku-band capacity is said to be comparable to Global Xpress (though that will undoubtedly be disputed by Inmarsat), and with Intelsat’s numerous Ku-band mobility beams, coverage will apparently be nearly as great as on Global Xpress.

The repercussions of this development are far-reaching, not least because it will make Inmarsat’s already challenging GX transition plan even more tricky. Inmarsat have recently backed off their original plan to select Rockwell Collins as the aeronautical terminal and distribution partner for GX and now appear poised to use Honeywell (who were originally Panasonic’s terminal development partner before Panasonic opted to bring that work in-house). Up until this week Inmarsat were requiring potential GX maritime distributors to drop their own VSAT service and instead act as agents for XpressLink until GX was launched, but Inmarsat’s CEO indicated on Wednesday that this is no longer the case. And Inmarsat are raising their prices for FleetBroadband service to try and prevent maritime VSAT competitors from using FleetBB as a backup, driving some of them such as KVH into Iridium’s arms with their new (and very aggressively priced) OpenPort backup service, which can cost less than 20% of Inmarsat’s on-demand FleetBB price per Mbyte.

Now the question is whether Inmarsat will have to engage in a further rethink of their maritime distribution strategy (prior to their hastily arranged maritime partner conference in May) as they look to assuage the widespread anger amongst distributors. Many distributors are openly delighted about Intelsat’s move, after they were told at Inmarsat’s January 2012 partner conference that they would just have to accept Inmarsat’s terms, and hand over their VSAT customers for XpressLink, because there was no other choice available. Inmarsat will also have to consider whether their revenue forecast for Global Xpress (of $500M in wholesale revenue by 2019 and $200M-$300M in 2016, based on their 8%-12% p.a. wholesale revenue growth target in 2014-16) is still achievable, especially if some of the key potential partners for maritime GX want to continue to use well-proven Ku-band services and therefore opt to stay with Intelsat for their maritime VSAT capacity.

03.03.12

Explode or implode?

Posted in Broadband, Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, Maritime, Operators, Services at 8:23 am by timfarrar

Ease your trouble
We’ll pay them double
Not to look at you for a while
And you rely on
What you get high on
And you last just as long as it serves you

Explode or implode
Explode or implode
We will take care of it

This rather dark song seems to sum up perfectly Inmarsat’s current dilemma: will the recent price rises enable Inmarsat’s revenue growth rate to “explode” or will the souring relationship with customers and distributors ultimately cause their business to “implode”? As an article in Cruising World points out, the basic price of Inmarsat’s low end FleetBB plan (the Intellian version of which costs $55 per month) will “more than triple” in May, and “it’s surely looking like the company doesn’t feel much obligation to the boaters who purchased expensive but yacht-size FB hardware once able to get online most anywhere at reasonable costs if carefully used”.

I understand that the amount of bundled data included will double from 5 Mbytes/month to 10 Mbytes/month (which may not be terribly relevant to low end users), but the plan will not longer include any voice and SMS – that will be charged on top, increasing the costs further. Cruising World attributes the price increases to Inmarsat’s loss of LightSquared revenues, which is partially true, though I’m told that internally Inmarsat has set a target of double digit revenue growth within its maritime business, and with the core shipping business very depressed, the only way to do that is to force dramatic price increases upon existing Inmarsat customers.

Almost 60% of all FleetBB users are on this basic plan, and so nearly 15,000 maritime customers will be helping to “ease [Inmarsat's] troubles” by “pay[ing] them double”. More importantly, many of these customers bought their FleetBB terminals in the last two years, and now will most likely feel that they have been the victims of a bait and switch by Inmarsat.

The price changes in Inmarsat’s handheld business are equally dramatic, with roughly 90% of customers using either the basic plan or low end prepaid cards, which are also expected to more than double in price at the retail level. Thus Inmarsat will also be faced with something over 30,000 handheld customers who have bought their phones in the last 18 months and will similarly feel that they have been victims of a bait and switch.

‘Cause you’re deserted
What’s good, you hurt it
And it kills you it keeps you alive
So give it up
In a world of puppets
It’s a shame what they do to us all

Inmarsat will presumably counter that neither group of customers accounts for a large share of their revenues (I would estimate the basic FleetBB plan accounts for perhaps 10% of FleetBB revenues, while handheld is still generating only ~$1M of service revenues per quarter), but it can’t be good for long term business if there are something like 45,000 end users who’ve been hurt by Inmarsat and will be expressing their negative perceptions (“What’s good, you hurt it…It’s a shame what they do to us all”) of the company pretty openly.

Distributors are also likely to be deluged with complaints by these end users, and many service providers are already actively focusing on alternatives to Inmarsat, as we saw with the recent KVH-Iridium partnership. Distributors are thus understandable furious about Inmarsat’s moves, with the (printable) comments I’ve heard ranging from “harsh and irrational” to “just unprofessional” and simply have no idea what Inmarsat will do next.

Though distributors might not be able to “desert” Inmarsat right now, ironically the low end customers that Inmarsat is alienating in the maritime segment are precisely those for whom Iridium’s OpenPort represents a competitive offering. Indeed, in terms of the opportunity that Inmarsat has just created, Iridium apparently feel like its February 2007 (when Globalstar announced that their satellites were failing) all over again.

03.01.12

Deal or no deal?

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 11:52 am by timfarrar

After the FCC’s release yesterday evening of the agenda for the March 22 Commission Meeting, we are soon going to find out if DISH has struck a deal with the FCC to secure a waiver of the ATC restrictions in the 2GHz MSS band. Some commentators have seen the FCC agenda as a negative sign, pointing to potential delays in DISH’s deployment, based on the comments made by Charlie Ergen last week.

However, another way to look at this announcement is that the FCC is simply moving to implement the provisions in the spectrum bill signed by the President last week (including the proposal for “an alternative band plan…at 1695-1710 MHz”), which as I pointed out, clearly indicates that DISH would potentially give up 10MHz of spectrum and move its uplink band up by 5MHz to enable use of the PCS H-block.

Assuming that DISH gives up half of its uplink spectrum and this is converted into an additional 10MHz unpaired downlink at 2000-2010MHz (with an implicit guardband at 2010-15MHz), thereby maximizing the value of spectrum to be included in a future auction (and allowing Sprint the possibility of a 10x20MHz LTE Advanced network), then a rulemaking would certainly be needed to develop service rules for this new band configuration. However, it seems unlikely that the FCC would want to go back on what appears to have been a carefully engineered compromise passed by Congress just a couple of weeks ago. Given that Sprint’s agreement to settle its litigation against DISH back in October was also likely founded on a desire to gain access to the H-block spectrum, it wouldn’t just be DISH that would be upset by such a decision.

The proposed rulemaking may also achieve a couple of other purposes for the FCC. First of all it allows any deployment timetable to be keyed off the point when the new rules become final, thereby solving the arguments over whether the clock should start running on DISH’s buildout now or in 2015. Secondly it may help to push any bid by AT&T to buy DISH out beyond the November 2012 election and provide time for DISH to pull together an alternative consortium of partners (which might include one or more of T-Mobile, MetroPCS, DirecTV and America Movil). The wholesale access conditions contemplated by the Commission could then ensure that AT&T would not be able to unwind other partners’ access to this network in the future.

UPDATE (3/2): The FCC has just approved the transfer of control for DBSD and TerreStar this evening, but denied DISH’s application for the waiver, deferring this issue to the NPRM which will be considered at the Commission meeting on March 22. It appears that the FCC still wants to pursue the path outlined above, but was worried about the ramifications of granting the waiver without consideration of the proposed deal in a full public rulemaking, especially in the context of impending litigation from LightSquared. This also should allow the Commission to push any prospective bid from AT&T for DISH beyond the November 2012 election. However, with DISH noting in their results call that a refusal to grant the waiver could cause them to significantly change their plans, it will be very interesting to hear DISH’s reaction and see whether they will take this proposed deal off the table (for example by returning to the dual mode handset model contemplated by the original ATC rules), thereby torpedoing the FCC’s chances identifying 15MHz of additional spectrum to auction as Congress mandated last month.

FURTHER UPDATE (3/2): It sounds like the FCC is doing its best to reassure DISH that the outcome of the rulemaking is going to result in the band being redesignated for terrestrial-only services, and that a ruling will come before the end of the year. DISH’s response (with its reference to delaying “the advancement of some of President Obama’s and the FCC’s highest priorities”) appears to hint at the real reason for this delay, that after the LightSquared debacle, the White House simply doesn’t want any more trouble before the November 2012 election, and certainly doesn’t want to contend with an AT&T takeover bid for DISH in that timeframe.