The announcement today that DISH is pulling its bid for LightSquared has thrown what was already a massively complicated and controversial bankruptcy case further into chaos, as we start the trial on whether Ergen’s purchase of LightSquared debt was illegitimate (and warm-up for a lengthy contested confirmation hearing over the next 3 weeks). Of course, the withdrawal of the bid completely undercuts LightSquared and Harbinger’s arguments that Ergen always knew DISH would come in and buy out his debt holdings and it will be interesting to see the effect on this part of the trial. Thus the withdrawal is certainly a logical move simply for that reason alone.
However, as we move forward into confirmation, there are two further possibilities to be considered. If DISH’s move is simply a strategic maneuver to undercut LightSquared’s lawsuit against Ergen, then it would be logical to expect DISH would ultimately give in when the debtholders attempt to force specific performance of the Asset Purchase Agreement (assuming the Ad Hoc debtholder reorganization plan is approved by the judge).
A second more intriguing alternative is that DISH and Sprint might be nearing a partnership deal, under which Sprint could use DISH’s satellite TV antennas (backhauled via a fixed wireless network using AWS-4 spectrum) for a 2.5GHz small cell hosting strategy in suburban and rural areas and DISH would resell Sprint wireless services. After all, if there is a near term deal to move forward with a wireless partner and an AWS-4 buildout, then the rebanding and delay associated with a DISH acquisition of LightSquared would probably cause more problems than it solves.
Certainly a hiatus in negotiations between DISH and Sprint seemed to be behind the leaks before Christmas that Sprint was planning a bid for T-Mobile and DISH’s rejoinder that it would consider a rival bid. Indeed one could view AT&T’s recent offer of a $450 incentive to T-Mobile customers as an attempt to kill any prospects of regulatory approval for a Sprint/T-Mobile tie-up. So from that point of view, Sprint’s only viable big move in the near term is a deal with DISH, and I’m told large scale deployment of such a network could double the total wireless network capacity available in the world today.
Another factor worth considering is that DISH’s move creates further uncertainty for the H-block auction as well, because (especially after Echostar’s purchase of Solaris, which has overlapping 2GHz band spectrum in Europe at 1995-2010MHz uplink and 2185-2200MHz downlink) the possibility that DISH will not decide to switch its AWS-4 uplinks to downlinks is back on the table.
Nevertheless, even if DISH doesn’t buy LightSquared, and no deal is ultimately worked out with Sprint, DISH could still come back and buy the 1695-1710MHz unpaired uplink spectrum in the FCC auction later this summer, likely at a lower price (and with rather less risk) than it would be taking with LightSquared – as unpaired uplink this band will probably sell for around $0.30 to $0.40/MHzPOP unless AT&T and DISH both bid aggressively against one another. So DISH certainly still has many spectrum options left on the table this year.
Today and tomorrow the LightSquared hearing will involve live testimony from both Ergen and Falcone about the debt purchases. Given that DISH’s maneuver has now undercut many of Harbinger’s arguments, and Ergen still seems to have plenty of cards up his sleeve, it will be interesting to see just how far Phil is out of depth in this great game.