04.30.12

What a MeSS!

Posted in Broadband, Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, LDR, Maritime, Operators, Services, Thuraya at 8:49 am by timfarrar

I noted back in November that the MSS industry was seeing a dramatic deceleration in revenue growth, but 2012 is already bringing even more challenges across the sector. As I predicted last month, Inmarsat’s price rises are causing a substantial backlash in the shipping industry, with the latest Digital Ship magazine including a devastating letter from AMMITEC (the Association for IT Managers in the Greek Maritime Industry), asserting that:

The handling of the pricing restructuring shows a blatant disregard for the long-term loyalty and trust that, up until a couple of years ago, the majority of the shipping world has had in Inmarsat and its maritime offerings.

Inmarsat’s (not terribly reassuring) response indicates that:

Inmarsat is listening to our customers. We recognise that some of these price changes will be difficult for smaller vessels, and so we will be introducing a small boat package to which they can transition.

However, to the best of my knowledge, this “Small Vessel Pricing Plan”, which Inmarsat told its distribution partners a couple of weeks ago was “in the final stages of development”, has not been announced before the pricing changes come into force tomorrow, and I’ve even heard suggestions that Inmarsat doesn’t actually intend to implement this plan unless it really does suffer from a significant number of customer defections.

Of course, Inmarsat is not alone in experiencing some self-inflicted wounds at the moment. Last Friday brought news that Iridium is implementing a “complete recall” of its new Iridium Extreme handset, while on March 30, Thuraya told its distributors that it had been unable to reach a manufacturing agreement with Comtech for its high speed MarineNet Pro maritime terminal (intended to compete with Inmarsat’s FleetBB) and so the terminal would not be in the market until “the end of the year”. As announced on its Q4 results call, Globalstar ran out of SPOT and simplex devices for a period of time in the first quarter after changing its manufacturer, and will shortly learn the results of its arbitration with Thales Alenia over its satellite contract.

Let’s just hope that all of this mess doesn’t harm the reputation of MSS providers for providing reliable service when its really needed, and in particular doesn’t make it even more difficult for the MSS sector to boost revenue growth in this challenging competitive environment.

04.28.12

Can’t buy me love?

Posted in Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 9:18 am by timfarrar

In yesterday’s Wall St Journal article about lenders “turning up the heat” on Phil Falcone (which surprisingly failed to mention whether he is sweating or not) it was intriguing to note that the article was changed during the day by the removal of one critical sentence. Specifically the version of the article as it was original published on Friday morning and then updated on Friday afternoon (at 3.28pm ET) contained the following paragraph:

The lenders believe Mr. Falcone has become a lightning rod that has made dealing with Washington regulators too difficult and threatens to upend the company’s chances of success, the people said. The lenders believe there are signals coming from Washington that show a willingness to engage in dialogue over LightSquared’s woes, but that Mr. Falcone’s presence could impede progress, one of the people said.

However, in the final version of the article (from 6.41pm ET and as published in today’s paper), this paragraph was simplified to:

LightSquared needs the regulators’ blessing for its nationwide mobile broadband network to succeed. The lenders believe Mr. Falcone has become a lightning rod who has made dealing with regulators more difficult, the people said.

This change might be taken to imply that there is some sensitivity on the part of the first lien lenders to even the vaguest hint that their billions of dollars could now succeed in securing a spectrum swap, when Falcone no longer has the billions to achieve that goal. After all, as I noted back in January 2011 and has been clear from the number of lobbyists hired by the company, LightSquared certainly felt that it was necessary to throw a great deal of money around in order to gain approval for its network.

One of the counter arguments coming from Harbinger is that “they doubt Icahn will get better results from DC” especially if (as Falcone claims) the debtholders are only interested in a “quick flip”. More importantly, I suspect that (as the change in the WSJ article suggests) after all that has happened in the last year, the FCC, White House and Congress will all now be extremely sensitive to any inference that money can buy LightSquared some love in DC, whether we have a Democratic or Republican administration after the election in November.

UPDATE (4/30): Last night the WSJ reported that Falcone has agreed to step aside “eventually” in exchange for a one week extension of the waiver of LightSquared’s debt covenant violations. This will allow negotiations on an extension of the waiver for 18-24 months, conditional on Harbinger agreeing to substantial dilution of its equity stake. The WSJ article suggests that debtholders do not want LightSquared to file for bankruptcy, because that would potentially allow Harbinger to maintain control.

However, it seems that the more plausible concerns relate to the assumption by both sides that any spectrum swap would come relatively soon after the November presidential election, and so by tying up the company in bankruptcy, Harbinger could preserve the chance of a recovery for its equity for much longer. This would be similar to DBSD, which originally planned to hand over the company to its second lien debtholders when it filed for bankruptcy in May 2009, but after a very prolonged stay in bankruptcy (due to Sprint and DISH’s appeals of the reorganization plan), eventually sold the assets to DISH in an auction in early 2011, paying off the second lien debt at par and providing a recovery for the equity holders (ICO Global).

We therefore still have to see if Falcone will be prepared during this week’s negotiations to countenance an immediate substantial dilution of Harbinger’s equity as a condition for avoiding bankruptcy. Clearly such an action would lock in a significant loss to Harbinger, as opposed to preserving all of the equity upside in a bankruptcy situation. Conversely, a bankruptcy filing would run the risk of Harbinger losing everything, if the debtholders can persuade the judge that the assets available simply do not justify contemplating a recovery for LightSquared’s equity holders. As a result, at the end of this week there could well be a significant gap between the equity dilution Harbinger would accept (perhaps less than 50%?) and that demanded by the debtholders (80%+?). In those circumstances, a bankruptcy filing and valuation fight might be the only remaining option for both sides.

04.20.12

Decisions, decisions…

Posted in Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Spectrum at 9:33 am by timfarrar

The news this morning that LightSquared has made the $56.25M payment to Inmarsat that was due in February and in exchange gained two years “breathing space” before any additional payments need to be made, is in line with the deal that I noted was on the table two weeks ago, and shows that Harbinger is still attaching importance to its spectrum rights under the agreement with Inmarsat as it tries to argue for a “spectrum swap”. In a way the $56.25M paid today may not be that important in the end, because if LightSquared files for bankruptcy within the next 90 days then that amount could probably be reclaimed by LightSquared’s creditors.

However, far more significant is that LightSquared has also given up all claims that Inmarsat had failed to perform its obligations under Phase 1 of the Cooperation Agreement (despite the fact that Inmarsat failed to retrofit any of its terminals with filters) and as a result Inmarsat is now saying there is “a high degree of confidence” that it will be able to recognize a further $325M. I’m informed that LightSquared had told its investors that there was “no good basis” to challenge Inmarsat’s assertion that it wasn’t actually necessary to fit filters, and it certainly appears that Inmarsat now has no intention of doing so, and instead will simply be able to recognize a further $325M (on top of the $154M recognized to date) out of the $490M paid by LightSquared up until the end of 2011 as pure profit.

Why did LightSquared make this payment, rather than filing for bankruptcy and preserving its right to sue Inmarsat for part of the money back? One explanation certainly appears to be Falcone’s continued delusional view that LightSquared’s problems can be overcome, and this fits right in with the decision back in December to give up $236M to Sprint in exchange for preserving their hosting agreement for a further three months.

More intriguing is whether this development could signal an agreement with Carl Icahn is going to be reached before April 30, which would keep LightSquared out of bankruptcy, as Falcone apparently desires, perhaps in exchange for Harbinger selling its Ferrous Resources shares to Icahn at what seems to be quite a low price. On the other hand, Falcone might simply be trying once again to convince LightSquared’s investors that he is the only person who can strike the deals necessary to keep LightSquared alive, and its also worth noting that Harbinger still needs to raise $47M from the sale of assets by April 30, regardless of whether a deal is reached over LightSquared (so that the Ferrous Resources sale has to happen anyway).

What this may therefore point to is a finely balanced situation where it remains unclear whether Icahn and his allies have sufficient votes to call a default on LightSquared’s debt after April 30. In particular it is not clear whether they would need to secure 50% support to call this default or as much as a two-thirds majority, which could be far more difficult. Today’s actions may or may not persuade some debtholders to support Falcone rather than Icahn, but as we saw with the Sprint deal, the potential recovery for LightSquared’s investors in the absence of a spectrum swap is rapidly vanishing, with only the ground spare satellite providing any reasonably monetizable asset, and a major part of the ($200M?) cash on LightSquared’s balance sheet will ultimately be consumed by bankruptcy costs.

Its therefore particularly hard to understand why the LightSquared debt has been consistently trading higher, to as much as 53-55 cents on the dollar this morning. The only way to rationalize the rising price of the LightSquared debt is that other investors think that because someone as smart as Icahn is getting involved, there must be a good opportunity here. However, as we saw a decade ago with Craig McCaw’s interest in Iridium and ICO, which ultimately resulted in him taking a huge loss, the satellite industry has a history of disappointing smart investors. With Andy Beal knowing only too well this industry’s cycle of “hopeful and ambitious birth, thrilling and painful growth, and an early and tragic death”, maybe he’s really the smart one to get out at this point. After all, as the Dallas Observer’s epitaph for Beal Aerospace pointed out: “I guess it’s hard to be a genius”.

UPDATE (4/23): LightSquared’s debt has traded even higher, as investors apparently believ a near term bankruptcy is becoming less likely. It seems like a consensus is emerging that Icahn will not have the votes to force a bankruptcy at the end of the month, and so a relatively lengthy extension may well be granted on the breach of covenant waiver, potentially through the end of this year. Even after making the payment to Inmarsat on Friday, LightSquared should have enough money to make its cash interest payments in July and October (totaling ~$50M), cover the operating costs of the current business and still have perhaps $50M-$100M of cash left at the end of 2012. I also understand that LightSquared has asserted that a spectrum swap should be forthcoming after the November 2012 election, although their recent track record of predicting favorable FCC actions is hardly encouraging for investors. However, as noted above, in the absence of a spectrum swap, the potential recovery for investors at that point will be even less, and it will be interesting to see whether Boeing still wants to buy the ground spare satellite next year, given that construction of the MEXSAT-2 satellite for the Mexican government will start relatively soon (the MEXSAT-1 satellite is scheduled for launch in 2013 or 2014).

UPDATE (4/27): The Wall St Journal is reporting today that LightSquared’s lenders are insisting that Falcone step aside as a condition for agreeing not to call a default on Monday. It appears a deal might be possible to keep the company out of bankruptcy for a substantial period of time, perhaps by substantially diluting Falcone’s equity stake, and thereby avoiding the complications (e.g. FCC license transfers) and expense that would be involved in a bankruptcy case. However, it is far from clear that Falcone will do the logical thing and step aside at this point. After all, when I’ve been wrong in my predictions about how things will go, its usually because I’ve assumed that Falcone and LightSquared will act rationally in the interests of their investors.

04.19.12

Why smart executives fail…

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, Iridium, LightSquared, Operators, Spectrum, TerreStar at 9:32 am by timfarrar

This week’s Bloomberg article about LightSquared had an interesting assertion from Nathan Pettit, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business that “Falcone’s doubling down on LightSquared fits a pattern”:

“People of status and power have an illusory sense they can control more than they do,” said Pettit. “That leads to unrealistic optimism, increased risk-taking and decreased inhibitions.”

That brought back memories of the classic case study on Iridium’s 1999 bankruptcy, by Sydney Finkelstein, which was included in his book “Why Smart Executives Fail” (uniquely, Motorola actually features twice in the book, both for Iridium and for missing the transition to digital cellphones). I wonder if Mr. Falcone has ever read this book and case study, because the parallels with the LightSquared debacle are quite striking. In particular, the three forces that according to Finkelstein combined to create Iridium’s business failure were:

1. Escalating commitment among Motorola executives who pushed the project forward in spite of known and potentially fatal technology and market problems
2. For personal and professional reasons Iridium’s CEO was unwilling to cut losses and abandon the project
3. Iridium’s board was structured in a way that prevented it from performing its role of corporate governance

In the case of LightSquared/SkyTerra/Harbinger, it is pretty easy to identify exactly the same problems:

1. Escalating commitment by Falcone, who kept devoting an increasing proportion of Harbinger’s assets to SkyTerra/LightSquared (and other spectrum projects such as TerreStar), despite Falcone’s apparent awareness of the GPS interference problems and the lack of interest from wireless operators in buying this (or any other MSS) spectrum. Similar to Motorola, Falcone’s history was that similar bets (e.g. in subprime mortgages and iron ore) had paid off in the past and so just as with Motorola he has maintained his “arrogance” that “the investment thesis was dead-on“.

2. Unwillingness to cut losses, because Harbinger’s investment was in equity, which would all be wiped out if Falcone did not continue with the project, but the chance of a recovery could be preserved by raising additional senior debt from third parties (just as with Iridium, where the bondholders also got stuck with a 99% loss because in the end the assets were essentially worthless).

3. Lack of corporate governance, because Falcone was able to make whatever bets he wanted with Harbinger’s money, despite the fact that as another Bloomberg interviewee pointed out “There should have been constraints on risk and concentration of the investments”. In addition, SkyTerra’s board was focused solely on trying to raise money and then sell the company to someone else (Falcone) rather on whether they actually had a viable business at the end of the day, because they could never hope to fund a terrestrial network buildout themselves.

As I’ve pointed out before, it took nearly nine months after the Iridium bankruptcy filing in August 1999, before the investors actually realized that the assets were worthless (and considered de-orbiting the satellites), during which time even as smart an investor as Craig McCaw considered a multi-billion dollar commitment to rescue Iridium. Indeed in the end McCaw and others actually committed $1B+ to rescue the similar ICO project, much of which now looks to have been wasted after ICO’s jury verdict against Boeing was reversed last week. As we look to what will happen next, I’m therefore left wondering if history will once again repeat itself, with Icahn in the role of McCaw, and a decade long court case in the offing.

04.17.12

The heat is on…

Posted in Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 4:53 pm by timfarrar

Separate articles published yesterday by The Daily Beast and Bloomberg had plenty to say about Phil Falcone’s “deep perspiration stains” and his claim that “he doesn’t sweat” under pressure. However, with the waiver of the covenant breaches on LightSquared’s first lien debt expiring on April 30, the heat is certainly on him to figure out the way forward.

Bloomberg’s article indicates that Falcone is hoping Carl Icahn “might become a partner”, as he searches for a way to keep LightSquared out of bankruptcy. In that context it is interesting to note that news emerged last week that Icahn is nearing a deal to buy a 14.9% stake in Ferrous Resources, a Brazilian iron ore mining company, from Harbinger at a price of $1.50 per share, one third of what Harbinger paid for shares in the company in 2009 and less than half of the valuation put on these shares by Harbinger in January 2012. At least conceivably, such a deal could provide a quid pro quo for Icahn’s support in keeping LightSquared out of bankruptcy, and it is notable that Harbinger also needs to raise $47.5M from this asset sale to repay its own loan (from Jefferies) by April 30, the same day that the LightSquared covenant waiver expires.

Two weeks ago I thought that the April 20 deadline (this coming Friday), when Inmarsat can terminate its Cooperation Agreement with LightSquared, could provide the impetus for a decision on whether or not to file for bankruptcy sometime this week. However, if the future of Harbinger itself is riding on avoiding a potential default on the Jefferies loan, then the Inmarsat deadline might well now be ignored. Inmarsat has been standing firm on its insistence that it must be paid even more money to contemplate any extension of the Cooperation Agreement, so if the April 20 deadline passes without payment being made, then it is hard to see an outcome where Inmarsat doesn’t just terminate the Agreement for default, and reclaim several additional MHz of spectrum from LightSquared as part of these default conditions. In those circumstances, it would become even harder for LightSquared’s successors to ever deploy a terrestrial network in the L-band MSS spectrum, even if the FCC was to mandate GPS receiver standards at some point in the future.

As a result, we may soon be asking what is actually left for LightSquared’s creditors, in the absence of any agreement with Inmarsat or Sprint, other than a ground spare satellite (which at least originally was worth $120M to Boeing, based on their vendor financing agreement) and an in-orbit satellite (which is probably worth very little, given its negative cashflows). Of course, LightSquared will try and sue the government, but that may now be made much harder by the statements of DirecTV’s CEO, who told Bloomberg that they “looked at LightSquared’s spectrum in 2004″ and concluded “It conflicts with GPS, it will never work”. DirecTV’s CEO may be misremembering the events, because Rupert Murdoch (then owner of DirecTV) was telling the Wall St Journal in November 2005 that “We may be forming a company with partners to build something out here that would give you broadband” and I had understood that these discussions were in 2005 (possibly even into early 2006) and broke down mainly over price.

Nevertheless, even Falcone admitted that in 2010 he “knew there were interference issues [but] they weren’t his to solve because GPS users were encroaching on his spectrum”. If that is the case then wouldn’t it have been rather better to tell the GPS community about the problem years ago, rather than try to spring it on them as a fait accompli at the last minute? It seems that as DirecTV’s CEO put it “Falcone ‘made a bet that the government would say, “Sure, go ahead,” or somehow make it right.’”.

Of course the complaints of Harbinger’s own investors will be significantly boosted by Falcone’s admission, and LightSquared’s investors may well suggest that UBS ought to have enquired more deeply into this issue before selling the first lien debt. However, for the moment, both Falcone and LightSquared’s debt investors appear to be more focused on securing a spectrum swap, which as Walt Piecyk says in the Bloomberg article (and as I’ve said many times before) “isn’t a realistic option [because] there’s nothing readily available and…if there was, that’s spectrum that could be auctioned off for billions in proceeds”.

Indeed the news today that the FCC has appointed Gary Epstein, a former SkyTerra executive, as co-head of the Incentive Auction Task Force (something which has already attracted Sen. Grassley’s attention) may make it even harder for the FCC to take any action to help LightSquared, because further accusations of favoritism would be sure to follow.

All of this comes as attention finally seems to be turning to the fact that (as I’ve said for the last 18 months) the “spectrum crisis” is based on hyperbole from the wireless carriers (not to mention the FCC and White House). As Marty Cooper, the inventor of the cellphone and Cooper’s Law (which states that spectral efficiency, or put another way potential wireless capacity in a given area, has doubled every 2.5 years for the past century) puts it:

“Every two and a half years, every spectrum crisis has gotten solved, and that’s going to keep happening,” Mr. Cooper said. “We already know today what the solutions are for the next 50 years.”

In fact, the CTIA’s semi-annual statistics, released last week, gave a pretty clear indication of what those solutions are. Remarkably, in the last six months of 2011, an all-time record 26,465 cell sites were added in the US (an increase of more than 10% in just 6 months) despite the fact that wireless capital investment by the carriers during 2011 was up only 1.7% on 2010. Thus it seems pretty clear that deployment of new (small, lower cost?) cell sites for capacity enhancement is working very well to accommodate increasing amounts of data traffic, without imposing any significant burden on the wireless operators. Indeed, with the operators apparently able to include on-net WiFi traffic in the data they report to CTIA, as AT&T is probably doing, the need for more licensed spectrum may be reduced even further. As a result, if LightSquared’s investors ever believed Mr. Falcone’s assertion that “it is clear that the investment thesis was dead-on” then maybe they ought to start having some doubts about that as well.

04.06.12

The next chapter…

Posted in Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 6:47 am by timfarrar

Its certainly been an eventful week for LightSquared (why is it that whenever I go on vacation something significant seems to happen?) and press reports have indicated that we are now moving a lot closer to my prediction in January that creditors would force the company into bankruptcy before all the money had gone, with Mr. Icahn apparently indicating that he is seeking a debt for equity swap to squeeze out Harbinger.

Mr. Falcone has responded by suggesting that he is “seriously considering” a “voluntary bankruptcy” as “one of several options” for the company. More pointedly, yesterday he indicated (in a very explicit reference to Icahn) that this would be an attempt to “protect the company from creditors who are more interested in a quick flip”.

Of course, the idea that Harbinger could remain in control rests on Falcone’s view that “a bankruptcy would not necessarily wipe out the equity holders of LightSquared because the spectrum it owns retains value” (something that I’m told debtholders consider simply “delusional”). At this point in time, the LightSquared spectrum is only usable for satellite services, which its very hard to believe could generate any positive value (because it would be difficult and time consuming for the satellite business even to reach cash flow breakeven).

As I’ve said in the past, the best case is that 20MHz of the spectrum might be usable in a decade or more for a terrestrial service, but if you have to wait a decade for the spectrum to be usable, and LightSquared’s “$10B waiver” has been withdrawn, then its hard to see why anyone would pay more than the $1.4B DISH paid for 20MHz of TerreStar spectrum last summer. Unfortunately using the spectrum at all would require maintaining the lease deal with Inmarsat at an NPV cost of somewhere between $1.5B and $2B (depending on the discount rate applied), which would need to be deducted from the above sum, and so its not clear that there is any positive value for the spectrum under this scenario either.

The last remaining hope to have some usable (and valuable) spectrum in the near term is to engineer a spectrum swap, but that would rely on the DoD showing some goodwill towards LightSquared, something which has hardly been evident to date.

As a result, after a voluntary bankruptcy filing, we would be thrown headlong into a valuation fight, where the debtholders tried to argue to the judge that LightSquared’s likely attribution to itself of a $2B-$3B valuation and proposed cramdown of the first lien debt was simply not feasible. It is difficult to see LightSquared prevailing, when the basis for a high valuation of the spectrum is simply not sustainable. However, these arguments will tie the company up in court for the rest of the year, and in the interim presumably Harbinger would try to stay in charge.

The timing of a bankruptcy filing is likely to be dictated not only by the April 30 expiry of LightSquared’s waiver in respect of the covenant breach from the termination of the Sprint agreement, but also by the status of LightSquared’s Cooperation Agreement with Inmarsat. Earlier this week, a deal appeared to be on the table whereby LightSquared would make the missed February payment of $56M and give up any claims that Inmarsat had failed to complete Phase 1, in exchange for a two year deferral of further payments. However, LightSquared appears reluctant to pay out additional money to Inmarsat when a bankruptcy filing would also prevent Inmarsat from terminating the Cooperation Agreement and could still allow LightSquared to reach a resolution with Inmarsat later on if that was felt to be useful. As a result, I expect LightSquared’s bankruptcy filing to come before the April 20 deadline on which Inmarsat can terminate the Cooperation Agreement for default, and plausibly it could be made over the weekend of April 14/15.

Mr. Falcone has also taken to the press to accuse “the FCC of bowing to special interests” by blocking his “shovel ready” project. The article suggests that he “first got into the telecom business in 2010″ when he “placed a $14 billion bet on what he thought was a sure thing”, which of course is revisionist history at its worst. In fact Mr. Falcone had been an investor in the predecessors to LightSquared and TerreStar since 2004, and made most of his purported $2.9B investment well before 2010.

Since the FCC granted the SkyTerra transfer of control (including various ATC license modifications and what appears to have been an implicit promise of a later waiver) to Harbinger in March 2010, the investment has mostly come from third parties. By my calculations, Harbinger has only invested about $700M into LightSquared over the last two years (including the cost of buying out minority equity investors in SkyTerra), while other investors have put in roughly $2B.

A better account of the history would be that by late 2009 (when Harbinger decided to buy out the other investors in SkyTerra), Harbinger had already invested over $2B in this project which had all gone to waste. At that point, Mr. Falcone desperately tried to rescue his losing bet (with assistance from the FCC) by persuading other people to invest their money into this supposedly valuable spectrum.

Remember that Harbinger also invested almost $1B in TerreStar’s equity and preferred shares from 2005 through 2010, attempting the same trick of converting satellite spectrum for terrestrial services, and that also was lost when Echostar acquired TerreStar’s senior debt and pushed Harbinger out, just as Icahn is likely to do in LightSquared. Ironically, back in August 2010, when TerreStar was on the point of bankruptcy, Falcone also claimed to Reuters that TerreStar’s senior debt was easily covered by its spectrum value. He was wrong then, as DISH’s ultimate bid was just enough to pay off the senior debt (which Echostar held the majority of) at par and unsecured creditors lost most of their claims (while the equity in TerreStar Networks was worthless). In the case of LightSquared it appears he will be wrong by an even greater margin, because GPS interference and the Inmarsat lease costs will dramatically reduce any interest in buying the LightSquared spectrum, and make it hard even for secured creditors to realize much of a recovery.