Will it be CharlieSquared?

Posted in Financials, ICO/DBSD, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 5:47 pm by timfarrar

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.

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