Its rather ironic to see the headline in the WSJ today, proclaiming that “A Gold Rush Hits Wireless Spectrum” on the same day as LightSquared’s bankruptcy auction takes place. While I’ll address the gold rush silliness in another post (although I note that amazingly enough MAST apparently still wants to fight with Ergen over the H-block), behind the scenes of the LightSquared bankruptcy there’s been a lot of activity over the last three weeks, as LightSquared and Harbinger tried to pull together a consortium to keep the company out of DISH’s hands (and submit a more credible reorganization plan).
Just before Thanksgiving, the “interest” of Fortress and Centerbridge was leaked to the WSJ, in an attempt to persuade other firms to become involved and to pressure the FCC to move forward. The auction itself was even delayed until today, to give more time for an FCC ruling (or at least some sign that the FCC would rule on LightSquared’s request), because many potential investors thought it was simply too risky to participate without any signal from the FCC that the proposed spectrum “swap” had a chance of being approved.
However, the FCC appears unmoved, despite some last ditch in-person lobbying by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt on Thursday Dec 5. That’s the second former FCC Chairman that LightSquared has sent to the FCC to lobby for them in recent months! This filing highlights that Centerbridge has been working hand in hand with LightSquared in order to try and outbid Ergen. The rationale behind Centerbridge’s interest is unclear, as I’m told they were not a previous investor in LightSquared, but appears to relate to a belief in the opportunities of the spectrum “gold rush”.
That’s different from Fortress, who own a substantial amount of LP Preferred Shares, which would be largely wiped out by DISH’s bid and so are likely motivated primarily to protect their existing investment. Fortress’s LP Preferred investment would receive only a modest recovery as a result of DISH’s bid, despite Ergen’s earlier agreement last April to purchase Fortress’s preferred shares at 95 cents on the dollar, as this purchase was blocked because SPSO is certainly an “affiliate” of DISH (the term used in the shareholder restrictions), even if its not a “subsidiary” (as used in the term loan restrictions). However, with the LP Preferred being next in line for a recovery, even pushing DISH’s bid up by $100M-$200M would provide a major benefit to Fortress.
UPDATED (12/11): It seemed that because everything had been so quiet in recent days, LightSquared might have been unable to gain enough backing for their bid, presumably because the FCC appeared to have been unmoved by Hundt’s entreaties. However, its now being reported by the WSJ that LightSquared postponed the auction to try and thrash out a deal with Centerbridge, which has resulted in a $3.3B tentative deal. I would expect that to include all of the company (and for Centerbridge to assume the Inmarsat Cooperation Agreement largely in its current form), so that Centerbridge would pay off the Inc holders and continue to pursue the spectrum “swap” with the FCC and the litigation against the GPS industry. Notably Harbinger could now potentially also stand to benefit substantially if Ergen’s $1B debt claim was ultimately disallowed as a result of the litigation, because there will be no debtholders ahead of them with higher priority bankruptcy claims.
If the $3.3B Centerbridge bid becomes firm, I wouldn’t expect DISH to bid even more, although it would remain the backup bidder through Feb 15 if the Centerbridge offer falls apart. DISH would have other options for uplink, including the 1695-1710MHz band which will be auctioned in 2014. However, if DISH did instead ultimately emerge as the winner, there would still need to be significant negotiations over the DISH Asset Purchase Agreement, which apparently has some areas of disagreement (not least over DISH’s request for certain releases (including for Ergen’s purchases) and for its purchase to include all causes of action of the LightSquared estates against the GPS industry, FCC, Inmarsat and Harbinger, etc.). If it came to that, I’d expect that issue in particular to require the intervention of the judge, and of course her ruling would therefore also determine whether LightSquared’s lawsuit against Ergen would continue as currently scheduled. In that event, a very interesting question would be whether DISH actually has an out in the event that no resolution is reached over the asset purchase agreement or whether the judge can force DISH to follow through with its bid, even if the final terms of the asset purchase agreement were not acceptable to DISH.
Despite all of LightSquared’s and Harbinger’s efforts, it would hardly be surprising if the FCC proves unwilling to act on LightSquared’s requests, because DISH has made it clear that it is not interested in the spectrum “swap” (see LightSquared’s recent motion for an extension of the use of cash collateral which states “As the Court is well aware, LBAC is not interested in LightSquared’s downlink channels or resolution on the series of applications LightSquared has filed with the FCC…LBAC is only interested in LightSquared’s uplink channels”).
Given that, why would the FCC give spectrum away for free to LightSquared (or even forgo an auction) when DISH would drop this request if it won the bidding, especially at a time when the FCC is under considerable pressure to raise as much money as possible from spectrum sales? Even selling the 1675-80MHz band of spectrum to LightSquared for the $300M assumed in the White House budget would inevitably lead to accusations of favoritism (because the price would be equivalent to only $0.20 per MHzPOP), so why wouldn’t the FCC simply auction this spectrum along with other bands, once the appropriate rules have been put in place?
On the other hand, Centerbridge must have come away from Friday’s meeting feeling somewhat comforted by the discussion with the FCC, so perhaps the compromise could be to auction the 1675-80MHz band along with AWS-3 and 1695-1710MHz next summer? Certainly the FCC is now in a much trickier political position if the Centerbridge bid goes through, compared to the prospects of DISH getting them out of the LightSquared mess.
Despite Phil’s efforts to hire the best lobbyists (and lawyers) that money can buy, even if the Centerbridge bid succeeds, it therefore seems like it will still be a struggle to put LightSquared together again. We’ll be publishing our latest report on LightSquared, DISH and the related spectrum issues later this week, including an analysis of why LightSquared suddenly lost one third of its total revenues earlier this year (hint: the DoD really doesn’t like them…). Contact me for more details if you are interested.