05.01.13

It’s academic…

Posted in LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 4:27 pm by timfarrar

Its interesting to see that two papers have recently emerged focusing on the loss of LightSquared’s spectrum “rights”. One of these, by Lenard and White of the “Technology Policy Institute” is little more than a puff-piece for LightSquared, apparently paid for by the company (the bills submitted by LightSquared’s lawyers document their meetings with the “economist” writing a paper for them), though the authors never state that this is the case. This report was released on Tuesday (April 30) as LightSquared attempts to ramp-up its PR efforts once again in the wake of the FCC granting LightSquared the Special Temporary Authorization it has been seeking for the last two months to test LTE in the 1675-80MHz band (apparently a farewell gift that Chairman Genachowski decided to leave on his successor’s desk).

The Lenard and White paper uncritically recites LightSquared talking points, without any understanding of either MSS or GPS services, and simply recommends that the FCC do as LightSquared requests. There is no mention whatsoever of MSS providers such as Inmarsat and Iridium (implying instead that LightSquared and Globalstar are the only licensees of the L-band and Big LEO band spectrum), and bizarrely the paper asserts that for the last 25 years the MSS spectrum “was, for all practical purposes, unused”. Similarly for GPS, the paper simply asserts that the “least cost option” would have been for LightSquared to have been allowed to go ahead, leaving “individual GPS owners” to be “responsible for retrofitting or replacing their GPS devices so that they would work properly”. Of course, no mention is made of the use of GPS in aviation and the timeline and costs involved in changing out safety critical equipment.

A more serious academic paper was issued the previous week by Hazlett and Skorup of George Mason University, which makes some broadly similar points, but comes to a rather more nuanced conclusion. However, this paper also suffers from similar defects, particularly when it dismisses the cost estimates attributed to GPS disruption by asserting that “Simple Coasian analysis establishes this [$10B LightSquared license] valuation as a cap on costs to GPS users” because the “cost of any “harmful effect” is “bounded by the most efficient (least costly) mitigation technology” which would be buying LightSquared’s license. The “cost estimate” of “an astounding $245 billion” (and the similar estimates by the FAA of $60B for aeronautical users) is of course nothing of the sort, it is a loss of social welfare benefits to GPS users if GPS service was rendered unusable. Hazlett and Skorup assert later in the paper that that “easily more than $100 billion in social losses [were caused] by pre-empting the creation of new LTE band” without apparently any thought that their purported $10B cap should obviously bound these losses in exactly the same way (as an aside the $10B number was actually the windfall to LightSquared from the FCC’s waiver, not the value of the licenses themselves). If it does not bound either estimate, then of course Hazlett and Skorup are implying that the social loss of “a new LTE band” is less than the social loss that would be caused by eliminating GPS service (which hardly seems surprising given that there are many other LTE bands available), but the question of what approach minimizes the overall social losses (e.g. requiring many years of transition) is left completely unresolved.

More importantly, Hazlett and Skorup then go on to compare the situation between LightSquared and GPS (which they describe as a “tragedy of the regulatory commons”) with what they suppose was the “successful rationalization of the L-band” achieved between LightSquared and Inmarsat, in the form of the December 2007 Cooperation Agreement, which supposedly resolved the “severe in-band interference problems”. This meant that “the FCC did not test radios, seek more clarity of “harmful interference,” or determine what reliability level Inmarsat’s customers would receive due to potential “harmful interference” from LightSquared’s operations. They trusted the parties to make efficient choices with respect to these concerns.”

Of course, while that interpretation might accord with LightSquared’s portrayal of the Cooperation Agreement, it is far from reality. Up until 2007, independent of the interference disputes, LightSquared’s predecessor (MSV) and Inmarsat had been engaged in a series of disputes over 3MHz of spectrum that MSV had previously loaned to Inmarsat and which Inmarsat was keen to retain for its new I4 MSS services (note that the previous year, when Inmarsat was unable to reclaim spectrum that it had loaned to Thuraya, Inmarsat was forced to suspend certain services in the South Atlantic ocean). By signing the Cooperation Agreement, Inmarsat was granted the right to retain this “disputed” spectrum until MSV raised funding to pay Inmarsat the spectrum lease fees due under the agreement, and if MSV defaulted (which was seen as the most likely option at that time, given the enormous amount that would need to be paid to Inmarsat), Inmarsat would retain the disputed spectrum in perpetuity.

When MSV actually secured substantial further investment from Harbinger, I understand that Inmarsat came to the conclusion after internal testing and analysis, that there was no chance that the deployment of MSV’s network would actually happen, under the parameters agreed in the Cooperation Agreement, because of the interference that would be caused to GPS systems. As a result, Inmarsat decided that even if LightSquared did actually initiate payments under the Cooperation Agreement (Inmarsat was to be paid $250M to cover its costs for fitting filters to its own terminals in addition to other very substantial rebanding and lease payments), there was no point in rushing to develop and fit these filters. Indeed the process required to gain regulatory approval for new aeronautical filters was sufficiently long that approval wouldn’t even be possible until 2013 or beyond. The Cooperation Agreement was cleverly worded: Inmarsat was given absolute discretion to simply replace the affected terminals if LightSquared’s network was ever deployed, and so Inmarsat simply banked LightSquared’s payments, and incurred virtually no costs. Then in April 2012, with the deployment of a new MEXSAT system on the horizon, Inmarsat kept the Cooperation Agreement in place, because of more subtle wording which requires LightSquared to hold Inmarsat harmless from any requirement to give spectrum back to the Mexican government when MEXSAT becomes operational.

All of that hardly seems to be a “successful rationalization of the L-band” as Hazlett and Skorup suggest. It sounds to me more like a sophisticated player (Inmarsat) taking advantage of another operator that is desperate to have some agreement to show to a gullible hedge fund manager, so that he would invest more money to keep them afloat.

I guess at least from that point of view it was successful for MSV’s then-management, because Falcone proceeded to commit a further $600M in the following seven months to complete and launch the MSV satellites, presumably taking advice from his due diligence advisers (who I’m told specialized in analyzing “fast food restaurants”). My guess is that by the time the GPS problems became apparent to Harbinger, all their money had been spent, so all that was left was to persuade other hedge funds to put their money in alongside Harbinger’s and try to keep up the pretense that all was well. After all, LightSquared’s CEO repeatedly told investors that GPS was not a problem, so that more money could be raised, when it was clear to me and others that was simply not the case.

The real question is when LightSquared came up with the end game of litigation or a spectrum swap to escape from this self-inflicted debacle. Was Falcone so delusional that he thought it wouldn’t matter if there was interference to the GPS system? Or was he expecting compensation from the government all along, once Harbinger’s money had all been spent in 2009?

2 Comments »

  1. A Smorodin said,

    May 2, 2013 at 7:13 am

    I’d like to correct a few assumptions you made about Lenard and White’s recent paper on Lightsquared. First of all, Lenard is not the “economist” mentioned in the bills you link to in your post. He has never consulted for, or spoken to, Lightsquared’s lawyers. Second, Lightsquared is a supporter of TPI (and is listed on our supporters page, along with 25 other companies) but our supporters do not fund specific projects – we are a think tank, not a consulting group. In addition, no one from LightSquared saw the paper in any version before it was released.
    Thanks-
    Amy Smorodin, TPI

  2. gschrock said,

    May 6, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Amy thank you for the clarification, but it does raise flags when some of the recommendations sound eerily like what has been seen in the talking points of the plan promoters over the past few years – maybe just based on some of the same skewed/flawed input from the plan promoters. So if a report sounds like it came from the Spectral Carpet Baggers Guide to the Galaxy, it could be mistaken as being sponsored or influenced. But there is a wealth of other good info in the reports all the same (despite overlooking things like the damning test results).
    But here is a little factoid that never shows up in any report (sponsored or not), and it speaks to the whole ratiinale behind sacrificing MSS/L-Band: of the 15 or so countries that we envy for having faster-better-cheaper broadband, not a single one of them had to compromise the MSS portion of L-Band (which is used for far more than just GPS), or have had to force the many millions of GPS users foot to the bill, to achive thier broadband offerings. Not a single one. So is this proposed course of action “the best last hope for wireless broadband” as we’ve been sold? Or is it simply convneient for a few investors. Not a single one had to do this – thety found other (better) solutions. How about better use of allocated (or often “sat on”) spectrum?

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