Merry Christmas Mr. Wheeler…

Posted in DISH, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 10:29 pm by timfarrar

Tomorrow FCC Chairman Wheeler plans to tell Congress that “we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission” with respect to the upcoming rulemaking on in-flight cellphone calls. However, that message could apply equally to the unwelcome prospect of Centerbridge’s bid for LightSquared, where the unexpected backlash over phones on planes may end up looking like a walk in the park compared to the renewed battle over approvals for LightSquared. After all, whichever way the FCC now rules will be “picking winners and losers” between DISH and Centerbridge and will undoubtedly end up making some people (including many politicians) very unhappy.

Earlier today I wondered what Centerbridge heard from the FCC during Reed Hundt’s lobbying meeting last week that gave them enough comfort to put together their $3.3B bid. However, it now appears that in fact Centerbridge’s bid is contingent on FCC approval of LightSquared’s so-called spectrum “swap” coming through very soon, presumably before the deal closes. Thus if the FCC doesn’t rule quickly in favor of LightSquared, the Centerbridge deal could fall through, and DISH would then be back in the driver’s seat with its original $2.2B bid.

Indeed, if the process is extended past February 15, then DISH’s offer could be withdrawn and LightSquared would be back at square one, so I suspect the bankruptcy court will require a firm commitment to be made by Centerbridge well before then. As a result, the FCC’s previous plan, to simply ignore LightSquared’s request and hope that it goes away after DISH buys the company, has now essentially become untenable.

So if Chairman Wheeler and his staff didn’t already have enough in their in tray (including ruling on DISH’s request for more flexibility in its use of the AWS-4 spectrum by the end of next week, in order to keep the H-block auction on track), he now has the prospect of spending the holiday period pondering whether to alienate the DoD, GPS industry and politicians opposed to a perceived spectrum “giveaway” to a reorganized LightSquared which will still count persona non grata (i.e. Falcone and Harbinger) amongst its major investors.

Given that Centerbridge’s plan is apparently simply to sell the LightSquared spectrum to AT&T or Verizon before the end of 2015 (when the new tranche of funding will run out), helping to make LightSquared viable is hardly going to do much to promote the FCC’s objective of more competition in the mobile market either (though who knows what will happen in reality, because Centerbridge will be trying to sell the spectrum in the midst of the most sustained period of major FCC spectrum auctions in history).

However, if approval is refused, then the alternative may be that the FCC has to face the prospect of LightSquared actually commencing its long threatened legal action against the Commission for blocking LightSquared’s ATC license. That’s because I assume that the LightSquared estate will now try to keep control of its causes of action rather than handing them to DISH if the Centerbridge deal falls apart, since the damages supposedly suffered by LightSquared investors as a result of adverse FCC action will now be much more explicitly quantifiable. Either way this decision is going to be tricky, and somehow I doubt Chairman Wheeler’s mood will be improved by the knowledge that several of his predecessors are already working for Phil Falcone.

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