On November 13, Globalstar submitted a Petition for Rulemaking to the FCC seeking permission to use its spectrum for terrestrial services, without any of the restrictions imposed under the current ATC “gating requirements”, and shift its authorization to Part 27, as used for other standard terrestrial mobile services.
The petition envisages two parallel rulemakings, the first to consider designation of Globalstar’s downlink spectrum (Globalstar refers to this as the “upper Big LEO band”) as an AWS-5 band, permitting flexibility for any wireless service to be offered, such as TD-LTE similar to Clearwire’s planned deployment in the adjacent BRS/EBS band. Globalstar also suggested that it be permitted to offer a Terrestrial Low-Power Service (TLPS), which would effectively be a separate channel for licensed WiFi service, using both Globalstar’s upper band spectrum and the adjacent unlicensed spectrum.
This would only be one possible option under an AWS-5 designation, but what is pretty smart about the low power TLPS service (similar to WiFi use, which already overlaps with these BAS channels) is that Globalstar may not have to relocate legacy BAS users who currently operate in the 2450-2500MHz band and could be impacted by a new wide area high power network deployment (as was seen with some of Open Range’s towers, due to lack of coordination on Open Range’s part). However, it is possible that even if the FCC permitted the TLPS service to begin immediately, it might require further actions to be taken (or impose other coordination requirements) before full flexibility was granted in the 2483.5-2495MHz band.
UPDATE (12/11): I’m told that legacy BAS users do experience interference from existing WiFi channels above 2450MHz, but that to date the FCC has not taken action to address concerns about interference from unlicensed spectrum users. Whether this will have implications for quick authorization of TLPS is unclear.
The second rulemaking that Globalstar envisages would then extend the AWS-5 designation to include Globalstar’s uplink spectrum (which it refers to as the “lower Big LEO band”), thereby enabling FD-LTE across the whole of the Big LEO band, which Globalstar considers to be the “highest and best terrestrial use” of this spectrum. The reason for separating the two requests is that the lower band (uplink) spectrum is close to the GPS band, and so the FCC is likely to be cautious about permitting terrestrial services in this band after the LightSquared debacle. As a result any authorization of high power LTE usage in the lower band spectrum (even though it would be for uplink only) would require considerable testing and therefore it would take some time before any approval could be granted.
If granted permission to provide TLPS by the FCC, it appears that Globalstar would look to monetize the TLPS offering (prior to gaining authorization for a standard LTE service) by providing spectrum for a small cell buildout, most likely by a major wireless carrier, but possibly by a tower company or technology player instead. Though such a buildout could be undertaken with existing licensed spectrum (e.g. Clearwire’s 2.5GHz band), or new unlicensed or shared spectrum (such as TV white spaces or the 3550-3650MHz band that the FCC intends to auction for shared usage), Globalstar’s advantage is that WiFi capability is built into the vast majority of smartphones, and Globalstar estimates that its licensed channel would be expected to offer around three times the range and speed of similar access points in the existing uncontrolled WiFi spectrum. However, Globalstar would need to move quickly to take advantage of the installed base of WiFi-capable devices, before capabilities to use longer range unlicensed spectrum (White Spaces) or other licensed small cell bands become widely available in smartphones.
As a result, Globalstar would need both quick action from the FCC and to strike a partnership (or long term spectrum lease) in 2013 or early 2014 enabling rapid deployment of a small cell network. In that regard, the fact that the FCC has acted much more quickly to put Globalstar’s proposal on public notice (2 weeks) than the recent LightSquared petition (which took 6 weeks) suggests that the FCC may well consider Globalstar’s proposal with rather more urgency. This certainly marks a significant turnaround in Globalstar’s relationship with the FCC, which was rather difficult (to say the least) back in September 2010, when the Commission suspended Globalstar’s ATC authority.
Globalstar believes that because of the availability of an existing WiFi device ecosystem, its spectrum should be more highly valued than alternative small cell spectrum, such as that owned by Clearwire. Indeed, Globalstar apparently considers that the future possibility of using LTE within its spectrum band could make this spectrum worth even more than the $0.20 to $0.30 per MHzPOP valuation seen in recent transactions such as NextWave’s WCS spectrum.
However, that is very dependent on a major cellular operator deciding to choose Globalstar as the solution for a small cell rollout (as well as future LTE licensing), and it remains uncertain what will happen to the value of “small cell” spectrum in the next year or two, as more spectrum is brought to market (a rulemaking on the 3550-3650MHz band will be considered at the FCC Open Meeting later this week), especially if data traffic on existing LTE networks grows more slowly than expected. Some think that the value of the 3550-3650MHz band will be very low (perhaps $0.01/MHzPOP or less), as has been seen internationally, which could lead operators to decide that putting a multi-billion dollar valuation on Globalstar’s spectrum for use in a TLPS service would be totally ludicrous.
Clearly the potential value of Globalstar’s spectrum is a critical component in securing investors for the new financing that Globalstar is trying to complete in the early part of 2013, because even though duplex revenues are slowly starting to recover, growth in the SPOT business, which has carried the company for the last few years, has recently fallen short of (at least my) expectations. Globalstar needs to raise money to pay for its EUR150M contract with Thales Alenia Space (TAS) to build a further six satellites, plus the launch and insurance for these satellites. At some point Globalstar will presumably need to complete its second generation ground segment upgrade contracts with Hughes and Ericsson, and Globalstar also has to address the April 1, 2013 deadline when $71.8M of Globalstar’s 5.75% convertible notes may be redeemed for cash at the option of the holders (Globalstar stated in its 2011 10-K that it assumed these notes “will be refinanced in 2013 by issuing additional debt”).
Much of the upcoming capex program would presumably be funded by an increase in Globalstar’s COFACE loan facility (which typically would cover 85% of the costs, although it is unclear if this would relate only to work carried out by French companies). It is worth noting that the FCC licenses do not form part of the security package for the COFACE loan, which could make Globalstar’s fundraising easier, if additional funding (from non-COFACE sources) was secured against the FCC license subsidiary. However, if Globalstar does not succeed in raising the required funds, this also poses the question of whether (in the event of a bankruptcy) the existing convertible note holders could sell the spectrum licenses and receive a recovery, even if the COFACE loan is not paid off in full by a sale of the satellite assets. Such a possibility may complicate negotiations over the upcoming refinancing of the 5.75% convertible notes.
More importantly, it will be very important to see whether the FCC follows the DISH model, and simply grants Globalstar a separate terrestrial license (alongside its satellite license) which could be monetized at a later date (regardless of the ultimate fate of Globalstar’s satellite system), or if it follows the LightSquared path, where (because LightSquared is operating under an ATC waiver) the L-band MSS spectrum cannot easily be disentangled from the continued provision of satellite services. After all, past bankruptcies in the MSS sector have shown how hard it is for creditors to achieve a large recovery from billions of dollars invested in MSS satellite hardware, and at least in the case of DBSD and TerreStar (albeit in a situation with no meaningful existing satellite business, unlike Globalstar), the in-orbit satellites were seen as a potential cost associated with obtaining the spectrum licenses, rather than valuable assets in their own right.