In my last post, I noted the skepticism of some observers about whether Charlie Ergen was really behind Sound Point buying $350M of LightSquared’s first lien debt, despite one potentially logical technical solution that could combine LightSquared’s spectrum (as uplinks) with the TerreStar and DBSD spectrum (if that was all converted to downlinks). Indeed LightSquared itself proposed to the FCC last week that the 2GHz spectrum could be used for its downlinks as one of the options for a spectrum swap and suggested in its comments in the DISH AWS-4 proceeding that the FCC should redesignate DISH’s 2GHz uplinks as downlink spectrum.
However, it now appears that many of the debtholders (and perhaps even Harbinger/LightSquared) seem to have concluded that it is not Charlie Ergen backing Sound Point, but the funding for the purchase of Carl Icahn’s stake instead came from yet another billionaire, Carlos Slim of Telmex and America Movil. Of course, Ergen and Slim are allies in DISH Mexico (Telmex provides billing services and sells the DISH Mexico service) and its been suggested to me that Ergen may have proposed Slim should use Sound Point, so that people would inevitably jump wrongly to the conclusion that Ergen was behind the LightSquared investment.
America Movil has recently announced that it is acquiring Simple Mobile, a unit of T-Mobile USA, as well as bidding for an increased stake in KPN of the Netherlands, and it is plausible to conclude that it might ultimately want to go beyond its current MVNO strategy in the US, by investing in a facilities-based network. In that context the two logical candidates at this point in time would be T-Mobile USA (whose parent Deutsche Telekom is still open to a “merger or asset sharing deal”) and DISH. Its therefore interesting to note that T-Mobile is suddenly now trying to derail DISH’s plans in the AWS-4 proceeding.
Acquisition of a LightSquared stake might provide Slim with another bargaining chip in any negotiations to invest in a US carrier, especially if he could wait patiently for LightSquared’s regulatory issues to be resolved, because he doesn’t necessarily need his own facilities based network immediately. However, he might also be able to bring a lot of pressure to bear on LightSquared, because as I pointed out back in December 2010, the decision of the Mexican government to build and launch the MEXSAT L-band satellites gives them an effective veto right over LightSquared’s ability to use much of its L-band spectrum.
All in all, its fascinating to watch quite how many billionaires seem to be attracted to LightSquared like moths to a lightbulb. Some, like Carl Icahn and Andrew Beal, have already left the scene, while one has lost his billions trying to make something of it. Meanwhile, the rest of us can only wait to see if this rumor turns out to be true, and if so what plan Slim might have in mind.
What a bizarre day in the world of LightSquared, where it appears nothing is ever as it seems! First of all, a comment yesterday on my last blog post gave some hints as to a completely different way to think about why Charlie Ergen might be interested in acquiring LightSquared’s spectrum, despite the current roadblock imposed by GPS interference concerns. Specifically, why couldn’t LightSquared’s L-band MSS spectrum be repurposed as uplink-only spectrum and then paired with the DISH 2GHz spectrum, which could all be converted to downlinks (a proposal already made in the FCC’s 2GHz NOI)? Then Ergen would have access to a total of up to 80MHz of spectrum which could be authorized for terrestrial use (four 10MHz uplink blocks in the L-band and two 20MHz downlink blocks in the 2GHz band).
As I pointed out in my reply to that comment, there are certainly some GPS interference concerns expressed by the NTIA over handsets operating in the portion of the L-band uplink closest to GPS (1627.5-1637.5MHz) and presumably these concerns would be considerably greater for uplink use of the 1545-1555MHz block because it is even closer to GPS. It would also be very hard to develop handset filters which could comply with the onerous ATC out of band emissions limits above 1559MHz (something that is easier to address for downlink use on a tower, where physical size and power requirements are less of a constraint), presenting further issues for uplink use of the 1545-1555MHz block. However, even if these two bands were dropped from the initial deployment plan and only three of the four bands were used eventually, DISH could still benefit hugely from having access to 40MHz of downlink spectrum instead of 20MHz. Indeed DISH might even be able to sell off or lease some of this spectrum to another operator and still build a network.
This guesswork seemed to be supported by LightSquared’s April 25 letter to the FCC, asking for the L-band to be addressed within the 2GHz NOI, so that “cross-band” solutions could be considered. The counter-argument is that any such change would obviously delay the process of authorizing and then building out DISH’s network considerably (most likely by 1-2 years), and therefore might not be acceptable to either DISH or to the FCC Chairman (assuming he is focused on maximizing the speed with which the 2GHz spectrum is brought into terrestrial use).
However, later in the day, news emerged that Harbinger and the debtholders have agreed on a change to the First Lien Debt Agreement, adding DISH specifically to the list of Disqualified Parties who are not allowed to purchase the debt (this section previously just referred generically to strategic purchasers). That would suggest Harbinger are not interested in some form of accommodation with DISH along the lines of the above “cross-band” spectrum pairing.
Even more bizarrely, I have had people insisting to me that it is definitely not DISH who is the purchaser, and Ergen is not formally denying an interest simply because he wants the LightSquared debtholders to be even more confused about his intentions, while he moves ahead with his plans in the 2GHz band. It was indicated to me that various people have already been spreading misinformation, for example when the WSJ was told that Falcone had agreed to step down (which I’m told he hadn’t), and when the New York Post was told that Falcone had not been presented with an economic proposal by the debtholders (which I’m told he had). According to this version of events, the New York Post story that “Ergen bought the debt” is similarly misleading and may even have been encouraged by Falcone and his advisors in order to persuade investors that there is strategic value in the spectrum. Of course that version of the story might just be wrong as well.
At this point what we do know is that Sound Point has a deep pocketed backer who is trying to acquire a significant amount of the LightSquared debt. If it’s not Ergen, then it is very hard to understand who would have a strategic interest in the spectrum at anything close to the price they are paying. We don’t know the intentions of the buyer, but it seems that they are probably not friendly towards Harbinger and would presumably therefore seek to force LightSquared into bankruptcy on Monday when the waiver expires. Whether they will gain support from other debtholders in doing that remains unclear, but it does seem that Falcone’s threat of a voluntary bankruptcy may not be give him as much power to dictate the outcome of this week’s negotiations as first thought. Most people certainly seem to think that another extension of the negotiations beyond next Monday is fairly unlikely and a resolution one way or another will be reached by then.
As a result we seem set for another few days of briefing and counter-briefing, in a situation where almost no-one knows who is telling the truth and who is bluffing. With $1.6B of debt and billions more in equity at stake, it really is going to be a game of high stakes poker this weekend.
Last year most attention was focused on the October 2010 bankruptcy of TerreStar Networks, which owned the 2GHz satellite assets that Charlie Ergen purchased last June for $1.4B. Much less attention was paid to its parent, TerreStar Corporation, which filed for bankruptcy in February 2011 and owned the 8MHz of spectrum in the 1.4GHz band that was leased to LightSquared in September 2009.
The reorganization plan for TerreStar Corp contemplated that this lease (under which TerreStar receives $2M per month) would remain in place, and the company would be handed over to its preferred shareholders, led by Highland Capital, Solus and Harbinger. However, this plan now seems to be on the verge of unraveling after Harbinger dumped its Series B preferred shares (which had a face value of more than $100M) earlier this year (keeping only the worthless subordinated Series E shares), presumably so Harbinger could repay its $400M UBS loan at the end of January.
These shares were picked up West Face, but Harbinger then promptly stopped making the monthly payments on the 1.4GHz lease, with TerreStar Corp’s March 2012 results now showing $2M of accounts receivable due from LightSquared, whereas in previous months this revenue has been booked as it is received.
Now TerreStar Corp has been forced to postpone the confirmation hearing (originally set for April 11) and hire counsel to help figure out what options remain for the 1.4GHz spectrum. Most observers appear to agree that the Harbinger lease was above the market value for this spectrum, and Harbinger appears to have been unable to find anyone interested in taking over the lease when it attempted to monetize the spectrum in January this year. It remains unclear what recourse TerreStar Corp might have to sue LightSquared to recover the lease payments, given that LightSquared Inc, which controls the lease and is the parent of LightSquared LP (where most/all of the cash is held) appears to have few resources of its own.
So now the question is what happens next for TerreStar Corporation? Will the 1.4GHz spectrum be offered for open sale? Do Solus, Highland and West Face really want to own this spectrum? How will a valuation (and a potential cramdown of Elektrobit, which is an unsecured creditor of TerreStar Corp) be agreed without the lease? Whatever happens, this certainly looks like yet another mess that Falcone has got his one time partners at Solus into.
Since news emerged yesterday that Carl Icahn had sold his $250M of LightSquared’s first lien debt at around 60 cents on the dollar there has been feverish speculation about whether someone else is backing Sound Point Capital, the small investment firm that bought the debt. Today that led to the price of LightSquared’s debt being bid up to almost 70 cents on the dollar, as investors wonder if a strategic player is interested in the company.
Attention has focused on Charlie Ergen, because of his record of doing the same with DBSD and TerreStar last year, with the Reuters article which broke news of the sale indicating that Ergen was previously an investment banking client of Sound Point’s principal. Notably, in both cases Ergen acquired debt of the companies before bankruptcy and then bought the assets out of bankruptcy, with the debt investors ultimately getting paid back at par. Ergen was even asked on today’s DISH results call if he was “interested” in LightSquared’s spectrum, but deflected the question by responding that DISH has all the spectrum they “need”.
Icahn was not regarded as a spectrum expert, and it was with some justification that Harbinger argued 10 days ago that “they doubt Icahn would get better results from DC”. In contrast, Ergen has an intimate knowledge of the regulatory issues and currently appears to be far more in the FCC’s good books than Falcone (exemplified by Ergen’s ability to secure a meeting with the FCC Chairman on January 4, when Falcone was relegated to only meeting with officials on the same day). Indeed LightSquared’s investors would very likely welcome the involvement of Ergen with open arms, and would certainly trust Ergen far more than Falcone to negotiate a way out of their current dilemma, despite Falcone’s claims in his comments to an earlier blog post of mine that:
Everyone knows Ergen is not going to build out a network. No one trusts him, including the FCC. They are not going to put their eggs in that basket because they know he will make them look foolish. It is inevitable. This guy, as smart as he is, will never build the network. He is using it as bait so one of the big guys step up and attempt to pay him for a dwindling subscriber base. Dish and Ergen are on the downward slope of a steep hill and he knows that, hence his aggressive acquisition tactics over the last 12 months…. stay tuned….
Of course we don’t yet know who, if anyone, is behind the purchase of Icahn’s holdings. Even if it is Ergen, then he could have a range of motivations, ranging from a defensive move to ensure LightSquared doesn’t disrupt the current FCC proceeding to authorize terrestrial use of the DBSD/TerreStar 2GHz spectrum, to a desire to help the FCC out of a hole, all the way to seeing a long term opportunity to make the L-band spectrum useful for terrestrial service. Indeed several of these factors could be in play simultaneously.
UPDATE: The New York Post is now reporting that Ergen was the buyer and he picked up another $100M of debt last week in addition to Icahn’s $250M holding.
However, one important consideration to bear in mind when drawing parallels with DBSD and TerreStar is that in those cases the spectrum was owned free and clear (whereas LightSquared has an expensive lease contract with Inmarsat, albeit one that is currently on hold) and (in the absence of a spectrum swap) the GPS interference problems in the L-band mean it will be many years before even a portion of the band (likely at most 20MHz) is usable. Both those factors will significantly depress the value of LightSquared’s spectrum relative to DBSD and TerreStar (where Ergen paid $1.4B-$1.5B for 20MHz of spectrum from each company) and make it much harder to justify paying anything close to the $1.6B par value of LightSquared’s debt simply to acquire LightSquared’s spectrum assets.