It feels like an age since Ergen’s plan for fixed wireless broadband and hosted small cell deployment on rooftop satellite TV antennas was at the core of his bids for Sprint and Clearwire in 2013. And as I pointed out last year, the AT&T acquisition of DirecTV seemed to pre-empt DISH’s plan and threaten more competition if DISH did proceed with a rollout.
Now the prospects of DISH reaching agreement with T-Mobile seem as distant as ever, and Verizon and AT&T appears eager to dismiss any prospect of them buying DISH’s spectrum. In addition, DISH’s stock has fallen after the FCC ruled against it last week over the Designated Entity discounts in the AWS-3 auction and Ergen has hinted that as a result he might now seek to dispose of his spectrum rather than entering the wireless market.
However, in recent weeks, Sprint has been playing up its small cell plan, but has not yet named its partners, except to hint that it will look towards off-balance sheet financing for the buildout. So I wonder if Charlie’s next angle to put his spectrum to use could be through a partnership with Sprint to make use of DISH’s rooftop sites in the small cell buildout, and perhaps host some of DISH’s spectrum at the same time. After all, the time when Ergen claims he is definitely leaning one way is usually the point at which he moves decisively in the opposite direction.
Such a deal could include an exchange of equity, with Softbank investing in DISH and DISH investing in Sprint. That would be a logical explanation for Softbank’s otherwise incomprehensible recent moves to buy additional Sprint equity in the public markets, rather than injecting much needed incremental cash into Sprint.
DISH could even participate in the network equipment leasing company (perhaps reframed as a JV) if it can use the cellsites for its own fixed wireless broadband (and perhaps mobile broadband) offerings. And none of this would prevent DISH from entering into a spinoff of its spectrum holdings, perhaps even with Sprint agreeing to act as an anchor tenant, leasing spectrum such as the PCS H-block and the adjacent AWS-4 uplink, which could be repurposed as a supplementary downlink and might provide Sprint with an alternative to bidding in the incentive auction next year.
A spectrum spinoff (or other transaction) by DISH still seems a likely outcome, and the FCC appears to have helped DISH on its way, by stating it will accept an “an irrevocable, standby letter of credit” instead of immediate payment, which will only be drawn if DISH has failed to make the $3.3B repayment of the DE discount by 120 days after the release of the Order (i.e. mid December), instead of the 30 days available to make a cash payment. That concession (which doesn’t have any obvious precedents that I’m aware of) will save DISH 90 days interest (over $40M at a 5% interest rate) and gives Ergen much more time to sort out a deal to reorganize his spectrum interests.
It feels like DISH will now finally have to pull the trigger on something, though I’m surprised no analysts appear to have even contemplated the scenario I’ve described above. The current uncertainty in the financial markets may not be helpful to the prospects of a deal being reached, especially if it proves difficult to get financing for a spectrum spinoff. Nevertheless, that need not prevent a small cell hosting deal, and with Charlie you simply have to expect him to have an angle most people haven’t thought of.
As I pointed out in a tweet a couple of months ago, Iridium’s SBD service is being used for command and control of Google’s Project Loon. So it was interesting to see just how much Google has been spending on Iridium airtime, when Iridium’s CFO mentioned in their July 30 results call that:
“…our network provides the connectivity to remotely command and control the assets of the large and unique project by a major company who doesn’t let us reference their involvement in the program. We saw significant airtime usage in last year’s third quarter during the testing phase for this project. We now understand from our customer that this high level of activity will decline in the second half of 2015 as the service moves into another, more mature development phase, which will culminate in commercialization in 2016. We expect a full-year decline of $500,000 in M2M service revenue from this customer as a result of this evolution, with much of that coming in the third quarter.”
Its been reported that the Loon balloons have flown for “more than three million kilometers” at speeds of up to 300km/hour, though an average speed of say 40-50km/hour seems more plausible (which would mean it takes 50-60 minutes for the 40km diameter coverage area to traverse a given location if directly overhead, or somewhat less if the balloon path is more distant).
So that would suggest Project Loon has achieved something like 60,000-80,000 flight hours in total over the three years of the project, with a significant fraction of that during the 2014 testing phase. Much of the spending on command and control was likely incurred in 2014, because Google reportedly moved to sending new orders to the balloons “as frequently as every 15 minutes” (and presumably receiving data from them even more often).
But if Google spent something over $500K on wholesale Iridium airtime (and even more with retail markups included) in 2014, then that would suggest the cost of airtime command and control is something like $8-$10 per hour (before retail markup). As a benchmark, the spending level of about $140K per month in Q3 of last year suggested by Iridium would then equate to an average of 20-25 balloons operating continuously during the quarter (which is consistent with Google’s suggestion that it would step up to “more than 100″ balloons in the next phase of testing).
Google has indicated that the operating costs of each balloon are “just hundreds of dollars per day” but it is still surprising to consider that the company would be spending $200+ per balloon per day just on satellite connectivity. Moreover, it seems that Google’s “hundred of dollars per day” quoted cost could potentially exclude all the other costs involved in manufacturing and deploying the balloons and backhauling the traffic carried by them. That seems pretty expensive compared to the costs of a new fixed cellsite and highlights the perhaps questionable economics of the Loon architecture.
Now that Google has announced an MOU to potentially bring internet to remote areas of Sri Lanka next year, it is also interesting to contemplate just what that might mean in terms of Iridium airtime if the deal comes to fruition. Google has said it needs “more than 100 Loon balloons circling the globe” just to provide “‘quasi-continuous’ service along a thin ribbon around the Southern Hemisphere”. So it seems implausible to think that all of the rural areas of Sri Lanka would be served with less than say 300 balloons operating continuously. Assuming Google could get a somewhat better deal for high volume usage of say $5 per flight hour (of wholesale revenue to Iridium), then that would equate to annual wholesale airtime revenues of perhaps $13M for Iridium. And revenues could be even higher if more balloons are used to ensure continuous reliable coverage.
Perhaps Google can afford to spend a few tens of millions of dollars a year for a demonstration project in Sri Lanka (although the funding sources for this project remain uncertain). However, the scalability of Loon to a global deployment must be in much greater question. For continuous global coverage there would need to be as many as 100,000+ balloons in operation simultaneously. Even ignoring capital costs, if the operating costs of the network (for all aspects, not just satellite connectivity) are of order $300 per balloon per day, then that would amount to $11B per year in operating costs (for comparison US wireless carriers are projected to spend $56B in opex between them in 2017 to serve well over 300M customers). Its therefore unsurprising that Google intends to rely on wireless operators (and perhaps governments) to support these costs, rather than taking on the burden of commercial deployment itself.