04.12.13

FCC budget shreds LightSquared’s spectrum swap proposal…

Posted in DISH, Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 10:18 am by timfarrar

The FCC’s proposed FY2014 budget, released on Wednesday, now appears to have sounded the death knell for LightSquared’s September 2012 spectrum swap proposal, that it should be granted access to the 1675-80MHz band, in exchange for giving up “rights” to deploy a terrestrial network in the 1545-55MHz downlink part of the L-band. Instead, the budget proposes that NOAA’s radiosondes should be relocated (presumably to the 400-406MHz band which is also used by weather balloons) and that the 1675-80MHz should then be repurposed using “either auction or fee authority” in 2017 to raise $230M.

This news seems to confirm what happened at the February 20 meeting between the FCC and LightSquared’s lawyers, is that the FCC told Latham & Watkins that they were going to propose reallocation of the 1675-80MHz spectrum for commercial use, but would deny the requested spectrum “swap”, so LightSquared would have to bid in an auction just like anyone else. Although the FCC has not yet issued a ruling (perhaps to avoid tarnishing Chairman Genachowski’s recent speeches about his legacy), release of an order may now be quite close, given the public disclosure of the FCC’s intentions in this week’s budget document.

That presumably explains why Latham & Watkins considered withdrawing LightSquared’s application for access to this spectrum, and why the FCC has basically ignored LightSquared’s March 5 application for experimental authority to test relocation issues. It also suggests why LightSquared has since focused on lobbying Congress, presumably with a view to pushing legislation to amend the FCC’s final budget authorization.

In a statement to Communications Daily (who first reported this issue), LightSquared continued its usual practice of pretending that all is well, asserting that “What happened today is certainly consistent with our filings” because there would be costs associated with any “sharing agreement”. However, even if LightSquared did pay $230M for the spectrum (and I find it hard to conceive that the FCC would simply award the spectrum to LightSquared if other operators want to bid on it at auction), the 2017 allocation date is obviously far too late for LightSquared to proceed with its fantasy of an LTE network buildout.

UPDATE 3 (4/13): LightSquared’s ex parte for an April 3 meeting with Commissioner Pai indicates a different (and more telling) story, going back to LightSquared’s generic appeals from 12 months ago about the “compelling need to find spectrum-based, technical, legal, or other solutions to the current issues” and abandoning the 1675-80MHz proposed “swap”. Notably, this ex parte was not even filed in IB Docket 12-340, relating to LightSquared’s September 2012 request to modify its ATC Authorization, which would have been required if the 1675-80MHz “swap” was part of this discusssion. Instead LightSquared is now apparently going back to its demand for “regulatory approvals” to move forward with its original L-band plan and threatening legal action if that is not forthcoming.

Given the Mexican coordination issues, the implausibility of LightSquared gaining any more spectrum for free, and the potential costs for continuing LightSquared’s Cooperation Agreement with Inmarsat after March 2014, its fascinating to see how much excitement has built in the distressed debt community in the wake of the WSJ’s report last week that Sound Point had been buying up LightSquared’s debt and preferred stock. That is despite the fact that several large holders in the Ad Hoc Secured Group (not just Fortress) have now exited their positions.

I’m told that a target valuation of 130 cents on the dollar for LightSquared’s LP Term Loan debt is now being floated by some people, based on an assumption that Ergen would convert the secured debt to equity. Even if one believes that Ergen will get involved (as opposed to using LightSquared as a bluff to secure a deal with T-Mobile, MetroPCS, CLWR or Sprint), then that seems excessive, given that buying out the TL debt at par plus accrued interest would only give a valuation of 115 cents on the dollar at present, and any bankruptcy auction will presumably look a lot like TerreStar, where DISH bid just enough to buy out the secured debt (including Echostar’s holdings) at par, just as DISH would presumably buy out Sound Point and other holders for cash at par in a LightSquared auction.

After all, DISH has $10B in cash, and potentially not much to spend it on right now. Any DISH deal with T-Mobile would most likely have come before the recent price adjustment to TMO’s MetroPCS bid (not least because it would have made it more difficult for Paulson and PSAM to hold out for alternative suitors), and a counterbid for MetroPCS is harder now that MetroPCS’s stock price has risen. Similarly, a potential deal with Clearwire seems to be slipping away, as it takes more money from Sprint, despite the efforts of Crest to block Sprint’s bid.

UPDATE (4/12): News is now emerging that DISH approached DT about a potential merger with T-Mobile a few weeks ago, likely in late March when I reported rumors of a possible deal after DISH’s stock price surged. However, DT reportedly wants to wait until after the MetroPCS merger closes and it has determined whether a merger with Sprint is feasible, which explains why nothing has happened yet. DISH’s case has therefore been immeasurably strengthened by the DOJ’s filing yesterday with the FCC, which highlighted its commitment to competition in the wireless market (presumably through maintaining the current four player market).

What would be the form of a DISH deal with TMO? The four possibilities are:
a) a joint venture (like Clearwire) which wholesales capacity to DISH, TMO and potentially other players
b) a hosting agreement (like Sprint and LightSquared) with TMO taking payment in the form of capacity
c) an investment by DISH in T-Mobile (like Softbank and Sprint) through the contribution of cash and spectrum in exchange for a majority equity stake
d) a full merger of DISH and T-Mobile.

Of these, I think the first can be ruled out, for the same reasons that Clearwire has had so many problems: TMO would take most of the capacity, so would have too much influence, and it would have an incentive to only use the JV capacity after exhausting its own resources. The second can also potentially be ruled out, simply because the deal would have to be more advantageous to DISH than the LightSquared-Sprint agreement: TMO would cover most of the costs and take payment in capacity, not cash, and then DISH wouldn’t need $10B in cash. The fourth option is probably also less appealing (as DISH has hinted previously), because DT might insist that Ergen gives up the dual class share structure which gives him tight control over DISH, and the synergies between DISH’s satellite TV business and T-Mobile’s wireless business are far less compelling than a merger between DISH and AT&T (with its fixed line and U-verse business) would have been. If DISH stays as a separate company then a merger with DirecTV also remains a possibility, perhaps with DISH’s T-Mobile stake being spun off to Ergen if DirecTV buys out DISH.

So the third option sounds like the most plausible, and the question is whether Ergen can purchase a majority stake in a merged T-Mobile/MetroPCS in exchange for $10B in cash and potentially $8B to $10B in contributed spectrum value. This becomes a harder task after the MetroPCS merger goes through and the merged company has a larger enterprise value (estimated at $28B-$30B by BTIG). However, depending on the remaining debt load after DISH’s investment, it still seems like a reasonable objective. Having a public market valuation for T-Mobile also makes DT’s decision about what share of the company DISH would receive a lot more transparent.

Of course, this new development also makes it rather more reasonable to regard a potential DISH bid for LightSquared as another bluff by Ergen, or at the very least a far less attractive fallback option (and if you think a deal might still be done with LightSquared as well as T-Mobile, note that DT is currently embroiled in its own LightSquared-like ATC scandal in India, with some of the original SkyTerra investors). It also confirms that DISH has moved on from its interest in Clearwire, and will most likely just look to cash in its sizeable profits (of up to $300M) on Clearwire’s debt when the Sprint merger eventually goes through.

UPDATE 2 (4/12): Clearwire has filed a proxy statement this evening, noting that it was approached by Party J, a strategic (i.e. non-financial) buyer, earlier this week with an offer to buy 5B MHzPOPs “in large markets” for $1.0B-$1.5B minus the NPV of the associated lease payments. Given the NPV of Clearwire’s lease payments is $1.8B of which I’d guess at least two-thirds is in large markets, and 5B MHz POPs would be around half of the leased spectrum in these markets (assuming this is the top 100M POPs in the US), that would mean a deduction of $600M or more, leaving a net price of ~$400M-$900M.

Walt Piecyk at BTIG thinks that Party J might be Ergen once again and I tend to agree (perhaps this approach is through Echostar?). It would fit with the move on LightSquared last week as another effort to establish a potential backup to T-Mobile, by persuading Clearwire stakeholders to hold out for more money and reject the Sprint bid. Clearwire seems to be hinting that it will file for bankruptcy on June 1 if the Sprint bid is rejected and that would also provide Ergen with far more options in the event that he can’t pull off a deal with T-Mobile, because of his substantial holdings of Clearwire debt. However, given the difficult relationship between Sprint and DISH and the numerous challenges associated with LightSquared, both look far less attractive options than a deal with DT for DISH to invest in T-Mobile.

6 Comments »

  1. sboZ said,

    April 12, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Who is Party J in the recent Clearwire proxy?

  2. timfarrar said,

    April 12, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    As noted above in the new update, I think Party J is most likely Ergen, again looking for backup options if he can’t get a deal done with DT next month.

  3. Why DISH should be negotiating with Clearwire rather than bidding for Sprint — Tech News and Analysis said,

    April 21, 2013 at 11:00 am

    [...] with a wireless operator. Alternatively, DISH could attempt to repurpose LightSquared’s spectrum, but that would be fraught with [...]

  4. Global Tech Review | Why DISH should be negotiating with Clearwire rather than bidding for Sprint said,

    April 21, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    [...] with a wireless operator. Alternatively, DISH could attempt to repurpose LightSquared’s spectrum, but that would be fraught with [...]

  5. Why DISH should be negotiating with Clearwire rather than bidding for Sprint | TechDiem.com said,

    April 21, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    [...] with a wireless operator. Alternatively, DISH could attempt to repurpose LightSquared’s spectrum, but that would be fraught with [...]

  6. TMF Associates MSS blog » Its the ecosystem, stupid… said,

    July 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    [...] sounds a lot like fantasyland (for example the FCC’s proposed FY2014 budget indicates that the 1675-80MHz spectrum will not be available until 2017 after weather balloons have [...]

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