05.08.14

Understanding the LightSquared bankruptcy ruling…

Posted in Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 4:25 pm by timfarrar

Today’s ruling from Judge Chapman on the LightSquared bankruptcy case took four hours to read from the bench, and has not been issued as a formal order, apparently to give the parties involved until to negotiate and find a settlement, before they are ordered to mediation under Judge Drain. However, the oral ruling effectively sets out the parameters for that negotiation, most notably that part of SPSO’s debt is subject to subordination, and though SPSO may be treated differently than other secured debtholders, it may not be discriminated against. Though the judge apparently found Moelis’ valuation more appropriate than that offered by SPSO’s experts, she agreed that it was not valid without FCC approval of LightSquared’s license modification requests.

This appears to be a clear invitation to LightSquared and Harbinger to buy SPSO out of the capital structure if they are prepared to wait around for FCC approval. In that case the main subject of negotiation would be how much is paid to SPSO in respect of its debt, and whether a) that is acceptable to Ergen and b) viable for LightSquared to raise in addition to the amount already contemplated in the reorganization. The judge did not determine a specific amount of Ergen’s $844M in purchases which will be subject to subordination, but did give a range of dates that should be considered: the $320M (face value) in purchases in April 2013 were said to be on DISH’s behalf (and therefore subject to subordination), the $287M bought before October 2012 would not be subordinated and the $238M in purchases between October 2012 and March 2013 might or might not be subordinated.

Moreover, it seems that the extent to which any of these purchases would be subordinated will be dependent on the actual damages caused to LightSquared through the delay in negotiations and increased legal fees associated with the case due to the delays in SPSO closing its trades. As a result it appears only a proportion of the $320M-$558M would actually be subordinated. Given that the time taken to close the bulk of these trades was around 2 months, and LightSquared’s total operating costs including interest are around $1.5M per day, it is quite plausible that the amount actually subordinated could be no more than $100M. This would mean LightSquared having to find as much as $1B (including interest) to buy SPSO out of its capital structure.

Of course, its highly unlikely that Ergen would have been prepared to accept less than the $700M he paid for the debt in the first place, but if the potential damages in the form of subordination are relatively limited, then despite Judge Chapman’s criticism of Ergen’s testimony and behavior, he is still likely to be in a very strong position. Conversely, Phil Falcone will have a much harder time coming up with a plan that will retain value for his equity holdings.

I’m also left wondering about what David Daigle of CapRe, as the biggest single LP debtholder other than Ergen (with $331M in LP debt at face value), will now do, because as Falcone indicated in an email earlier this year “I believe [D]aigle is determined to reduce our position to nothing“. An alliance between CapRe and SPSO to push a debt to equity conversion of the LP debt would probably make it all but impossible for Harbinger to retain value in the reorganization, even if as much as $300M of SPSO’s debt was subject to subordination.

Elimination of Harbinger’s position would be equally unacceptable to Falcone, and thus it seems rather unlikely that agreement will be reached in the next couple of weeks. The best bet would therefore be to assume we will be headed to mediation and yet more DIP financing from the LP holders to extend the process for a couple more months, probably ending up either in an auction with credit bids or directly in a debt-to-equity swap. That presumably means no money for Inmarsat in June. It also implies that the probability of LP debtholders getting paid out in cash with accrued interest anytime soon has also decreased significantly. However, in the medium term it may be better news for GPS, because the debtholders would probably be prepared to drop LightSquared’s current lawsuit against the GPS industry, if it helped their efforts to get the necessary approvals from the FCC.

03.14.14

Busman’s holiday…

Posted in DISH, Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Thuraya at 9:35 am by timfarrar

Back in 2009, only a year before it embarked on the original $1.2B and now $1.6B Global Xpress Ka-band project (this new figure implicitly includes the launch of the fourth I5 satellite), Inmarsat’s CEO was happy to tell investors that “We are going into a period of capex holiday”. So perhaps it was inevitable that earlier this month at Inmarsat’s Q4 results presentation, some analysts were worried about the “risk that CapEx in 2015 won’t come down by the $300M figure you’ve mentioned”.

It does seem they were right to be concerned, because its now being reported (and I’ve confirmed) that Inmarsat and Arabsat are negotiating the inclusion of an S-band payload on Hellas Sat 3, similar to the Solaris piggyback payload on Eutelsat W2A.

I’m told that Inmarsat is now actively applying for national licenses to preserve its rights to 2x15MHz of S-band spectrum in Europe, after turning down an offer from Charlie Ergen to buy the license from them (in fact Ergen met with Rupert Pearce, Inmarsat’s CEO, in Washington DC this week). Inmarsat was previously exploring the development of an Air-To-Ground (ATG) network using this spectrum in Europe, but that has been abandoned, because it proved impossible to resolve the regulatory issues in the short timeframe available before the license deadlines (for a satellite launch) expire.

The new S-band business plan is instead directed at “smaller, cheaper terminals” for traditional MSS services (an opportunity that Inmarsat’s CEO highlighted on the MSS CEO panel that I moderated at Satellite 2014) rather than terrestrial exploitation of the spectrum. Another potential reason for Inmarsat’s move is that Thuraya will be trying to secure backing for a replacement L-band satellite over the next year, and by teaming up with Arabsat, Inmarsat could look to undermine Thuraya’s pitch that having an MSS satellite from the Middle East is a matter of regional pride.

In fact, Inmarsat was very firm at the conference that MSS spectrum should not be reallocated for terrestrial use, and even described the LightSquared Cooperation Agreement as something they were “forced” into (implicitly by the FCC), with Inmarsat’s preoccupation being to protect their MSS users from interference. This was quite a striking signal that Inmarsat may not be very supportive of compromise with LightSquared, which is a condition of the current bankruptcy exit plan.

In particular, Inmarsat is sitting on about $260M of deferred revenues, which were paid by LightSquared prior to the bankruptcy, to pay Inmarsat for fitting filters to its existing terminals (as I’ve noted before Inmarsat concluded this wasn’t actually required, so they kept the money). If Global Xpress revenues don’t ramp-up as quickly as expected (and there is now a high likelihood that the third I5 satellite will not be launched this year, since its not even on the latest Russian schedule and the second satellite is currently listed as launching in September), then the easiest way for Inmarsat to meet the 8%-12% wholesale revenue CAGR from 2014-16 that it reiterated on the Q4 results (which requires an increase of $200M to $300M in absolute terms) would be to book most if not all of those deferred revenues in 2016.

Of course, that is actually supportive of Ergen’s original proposal to just use the LightSquared uplink spectrum, because filters would only be required if the downlink band is actually used for terrestrial services. On the other hand, because Inmarsat would want to book the deferred revenues in 2016, rather than 2014 or 2015 when the bankruptcy process is complete, it seems plausible that Inmarsat would agree to an additional two year deferral of most payments from April 2014 to early 2016, aligned with the assumptions in LightSquared’s latest plan that FCC approval would be received by the end of 2015 and that their new funding would last through the first quarter of 2016.

At that point, if LightSquared has made no progress with the downlink band and is forced to fall back on uplink only use of the MSS spectrum, Inmarsat could book the deferred revenues and potentially could even get some additional payments for leasing the uplink spectrum at a later date. Don’t forget that Ergen might still be on the scene as well, since the deadline for completion of what will now likely be two competing European S-band projects is also in the first half of 2016.

So now we move to the key hearings next week in the LightSquared bankruptcy case, which will address the adversary proceeding against Ergen and LightSquared’s plan for emergence. As I’ve noted previously, despite the evidence LightSquared has marshaled about Ergen’s strategic objectives for his investments, it would be a major step for the judge to allow LightSquared to put Ergen/SPSO in a class of his own, then designate his vote and give him a third lien note with no exit for 7 years (and potentially no value in the absence of FCC approval). However, no one seems clear about what the judge will do, and what any compromise ruling might entail.

02.27.14

DISH of the day…

Posted in DISH, Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 2:29 pm by timfarrar

Today the H-block auction finally came to a close, after taking longer than many expected to reach the reserve price of $1.564B. Its clear that DISH won virtually all of the licenses, since it was able to select a sequence of bids to exactly match the reserve price.

However, DISH has also faced unexpectedly prolonged opposition from one other bidder who kept bidding on one or two small licenses (and switching around to find the relatively cheaper licenses) for several days in an attempt to secure a license that DISH might buy out later on. The competitor seems to have had only about 60,000 bidding units of eligibility yesterday and more than likely ended up winning one or two small licenses for a couple of million dollars total (a price of about $0.30 per MHzPOP). Stopping at the reserve price and being prepared to buy out the competitor later on (for say $10M-$20M) certainly made more sense for DISH than continuing to play Whac-a-Mole and bidding up licenses across the board to win all of the licenses at a much higher price.

So now the question is whether we will see DISH announce some sort of deal to put its spectrum to use in the near future. Ergen has ruled out bidding against Sprint for T-Mobile, but that doesn’t mean DISH wouldn’t oppose such a bid at the FCC and DoJ. Indeed, if Sprint decided to pay T-Mobile a break fee mainly in spectrum, which would almost certainly be in the 2.5GHz Clearwire band, DISH would have a big incentive to try and block Sprint’s bid before later engineering a lower priced deal with T-Mobile. On the other hand, DISH’s H-block win now gives Sprint more incentive to include DISH in any deal with T-Mobile (most likely joining with DISH to roll out a competitive fixed broadband wireless solution using DISH’s satellite TV antennas while perhaps leasing the H-block from DISH).

However, if DISH is left out in the cold by Sprint, Ergen could eventually turn his attention to a merger with DirecTV. Some thought that the asset swap between DISH and EchoStar that was announced last week was intended to “pave the way for a merger with DirecTV”. However, I think that misunderstands what the next move is going to be and that this deal was intended to set EchoStar not DISH up for a near term transaction, by giving it more satellites plus a guaranteed (and incentivized) satellite broadband customer for the next 10 years, while removing some of the risk associated with consumer retail sales (which is less attractive to an FSS operator). That deal is highly likely to be with Telesat and/or Loral, which recently was reported to be up for sale and has been looked at by Ergen in the past. In contrast, any deal with DirecTV is more likely to be months away.

In addition to all of this action for DISH and Echostar, Ergen was also basically told by the judge in the LightSquared bankruptcy case on that he (i.e. SPSO) needs to come up with an alternative plan for LightSquared before the confirmation hearing on March 17, because she is “not going to say today ‘lights out on this company’” by rejecting the current plan from the company, even though SPSO has “strong” arguments that the plan is infeasible.

So now we appear poised to see one or more transactions from DISH, EchoStar and/or SPSO in the next few weeks. I would estimate that the probability of a LightSquared offer from SPSO is at least 90%, and the likelihood of a Telesat/Loral deal with EchoStar is perhaps 60%-70%, but the chance of a (much more significant) Sprint deal with DISH is no more than 30%. Nevertheless, that will still be plenty to keep Charlie busy for the time being.

02.19.14

Kissing off Charlie…

Posted in DISH, Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 3:47 pm by timfarrar

LightSquared’s Valentine’s Day message to Charlie Ergen was neither short nor sweet, with the filing of an 883 page long third amended bankruptcy plan on Friday night. The new plan no longer requires FCC approval of LightSquared’s license modification application before emergence, because as I pointed out last month, the FCC’s intervention had made LightSquared’s previous contingent plan untenable.

LightSquared has instead delayed the assumed timetable for FCC approval until December 31, 2015, and at this stage plans to raise enough money to carry the company through the first quarter of 2016. That will include a new $1.65B DIP facility, which will be sufficient to pay off all of the existing creditors of LightSquared (including accrued interest) with the exception of Ergen/SPSO. The new DIP facility would be expected to close at the end of March 2014, so the creditors wouldn’t even have to wait for the company to emerge from bankruptcy.

Because of the lack of FCC approvals, LightSquared can’t raise enough new money to pay off all of its debts, and so the plan involves subordinating Ergen/SPSO’s debt in the form of a third lien 7 year note, paying PIK interest at 12%. Ergen’s debt would rank behind a $1B first lien exit facility (which could be increased by another $500M after FCC approval of the license modification) and a second lien LP facility which would include $930M from the planned $1.65B DIP financing.

Of course, there is little incentive for Ergen to agree to this proposal, and even if the judge decides to approve the plan, including the new DIP financing, I would expect that LightSquared’s emergence from bankruptcy could be delayed while appeals take place (the current expectation is for the plan to become effective on or before October 31, 2014).

Importantly, LightSquared won’t have to make any payments to Inmarsat until it emerges from bankruptcy, and the plan contemplates that “the Inmarsat Agreement shall have been amended in a manner acceptable to the Lenders, which amendment shall include an extension of the period for election of spectrum and corresponding deferral of payments in respect thereof acceptable to the Lenders.”

However, LightSquared’s attempts to subordinate SPSO’s debt holdings are not based solely on the pending adversary proceeding, in which Ergen and Falcone testified in January. Instead LightSquared is seeking to designate SPSO’s vote, based on the DBSD precedent, which of course also involved DISH (disclosure: I testified as an expert in that case).

That Second Circuit ruling was based on deterring “attempts to ‘obtain a blocking position’ and thereby ‘control the bankruptcy process for [a] potentially strategic asset’ (as DISH’s own internal documents stated)” although it “[left] for another day the situation in which a preexisting creditor votes with strategic intentions” (which SPSO might be, because at least some of its purchases were made before LightSquared filed for bankruptcy). In addition, DBSD doesn’t address whether a debtor is able to divide one class of its debt into two so that there is only one creditor in a subclass, who can be treated differently from the rest of the class once that creditor’s vote is designated. Importantly, if the vote of the sole creditor in a class is designated, then (under DBSD) there then is no need to provide that creditor with “the indubitable equivalent” of its claims, as would otherwise be required under the “(more arduous) cram-down standards of §1129(b)”.

That’s why LightSquared is presenting allegations in the new bankruptcy plan which attempt to match the DBSD findings as closely as possible, stating that:

“LightSquared and the Supporting Parties believe that Ergen Entities’ inequitable scheme – which was outlined to the DISH board in a May 2, 2013 presentation – began when SPSO, which is controlled by Ergen, acquired LightSquared LP secured bank debt and preferred stock to influence these Chapter 11 Cases. The parties further believe that the evidence at trial contradicted the Ergen Entities’ contention that SPSO purchased LightSquared LP’s debt solely as an investment. Rather, the evidence demonstrated that SPSO’s acquisition was a scheme to control LightSquared’s bankruptcy process and to facilitate a spectrum acquisition option by DISH. Among other things, Ergen’s and Stephen Ketchum’s testimony demonstrated that (a) the Ergen Entities paid a third percent (30%) premium on what Ergen believed the debt was worth in order to obtain a blocking position, (b) obtaining a blocking position was an early objective, and (c) the Ergen Entities’ equated the blocking position with facilitating the acquisition of LightSquared’s spectrum assets.

LightSquared and the Supporting Parties further believe that, in the next phase of the Ergen Entities’ concerted scheme, shortly after SPSO had acquired a blocking position, Ergen caused LBAC to make a bid for substantially all of LightSquared LP’s assets, a bid that Ergen designed to be particularly attractive to LightSquared LP’s other secured lenders by consisting of an amount sufficient to pay LightSquared LP’s secured debt in full, and conditioning payment only on Hart-Scott-Rodino approval. The Ergen Entities, however, were already contemplating ways in which they could pay less than the agreed purchase price for the LightSquared LP assets if no other bids materialized. This tactic – reverting at a later date with an altogether different bid – was also outlined in the May 2, 2013 presentation.”

So now the question is whether Judge Chapman will go along with LightSquared’s plan, agree to treat SPSO’s debt as a separate class and designate SPSO’s vote. One argument that SPSO is likely to make is that it should not be in a separate class from other LP debtholders (in which case designation of its vote would become irrelevant, because the LP debtholders are being paid in full in cash). And of course, we will certainly hear a very different explanation of the developments described above.

I also wonder if Ergen will make an offer to purchase LightSquared through SPSO in an attempt to provide an alternative for the judge, perhaps at a price of roughly $2B as he tentatively offered last summer (although a lower offer of say $1.7B, or face value for the debt, might be plausible in view of the regulatory risk that the FCC introduced with its intervention last month). Remember that Ergen testified last month that he had considered bidding himself, by borrowing against his stake in EchoStar.

However, an offer by DISH seems unlikely, in view of DISH’s focus on other opportunities, and the fact that it would complicate Ergen’s defense against LightSquared’s allegations of an “inequitable scheme…to pay less than the agreed purchase price”. Indeed the defense would be stronger if DISH entered an alternative deal, providing the judge with a coherent rationale for the abandonment of its LightSquared bid.

In summary, it looks like it will be at least another month before there is any certainty about what happens to LightSquared. In the meantime, the H-block auction has been fairly quiet, with only a very slow rise in the total bids (to reach just below $1.5B at the end of Round 96 today). This afternoon, the pattern of new bids has changed somewhat, suggesting that DISH is mostly bidding against itself right now, and its remaining opponent(s) may have as little as a few hundred thousand bidding units of eligibility left. Once the auction is complete (which may finish on Friday or drag on until early next week) then I expect we’ll hear a lot more speculation about what else DISH has in mind and perhaps even a deal ahead of the confirmation hearing on LightSquared’s latest plan.

01.27.14

What if they held an auction and nobody came?

Posted in DISH, Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 3:10 pm by timfarrar

No, not LightSquared, although a renewed auction, with no contingencies associated with FCC approval, does now seem like the most plausible way forward for the company. The big issue is then whether Ergen/SPSO’s debt holding are subordinated as a result of the recent trial: if he is then it might not require much more than a $1.2B credit bid for the debtholders to take control of the company, although in those circumstances I’d still expect Ergen to come back with a rival (personal) bid for the assets so that he doesn’t lose his $700M investment. However, if there is no subordination, then we may not see anyone outbidding Ergen even at a price of $1.5B-$2B (which would not repay the secured debtholders in full).

Actually I’m more interested in the lack of competitive bidding in the H-block auction, which slowed even further today. So far, after Round 12, only $456M has been bid for the licenses on offer, or less than 30% of DISH’s minimum bid commitment of $1564M. The bidding is anonymous, so its hard to tell whether two different bidders are bidding in turn for many of the licenses or if DISH is bidding against itself in order to reach the minimum commitment.

However, the evidence now points increasingly to it being the latter situation, after bidding on the New York and Los Angeles licenses (which had accounted for $216.5M or 56% of the total bids) stopped at the end of Round 8. Then bidding resumed on several other large cities, including Boston, Washington, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, which had seen no bids since Round 1. The coordinated nature of this switching could mean that DISH faces a single large opponent, who ceased bidding on New York and Los Angeles and used its eligibility to bid for these other cities instead.

Instead, it seems more likely that DISH has been bidding against itself since the early rounds of the auction, because DISH has committed to bid $0.50/MHzPOP on average across the country and the bids have only reached $0.51 in New York and $0.41 in Los Angeles. Obviously any opponent would have had to have been prepared to bid rather more than $0.50/MHzPOP to win the licenses in NY or LA, and even if the objective of a DISH opponent was actually to pick up less expensive licenses in other cities, it would have been necessary to force DISH to bid more than $0.50/MHzPOP in NY and LA so that DISH could reach its committed minimum bid threshold without owning all of the licenses nationwide.

If we look at all of the 24 licenses that have attracted competing bids at any stage during the auction, as shown in the chart below, we can see that virtually all of the competitive bidding has been confined to a few small areas, notably in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah, where 10 licenses (including Denver and Salt Lake City) have seen multiple bids. There has also been another smaller cluster of activity in Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia.

It is particularly notable that DISH appears to have been deterring any rival bids through multiple rounds of incremental bidding, regardless of whether it holds the license (which is randomly assigned between equal competing bids), until any competitors have demonstrably given up, as seen in the repeated rounds of multiple bids (note competitors with no minimum bid requirement would not overbid themselves, but DISH would be happy to do that while it remains below the minimum bidding threshold).

My suspicion is that the same factor may have been in play in New York and Los Angeles, where a token competitive bid was mounted in the first round, and then DISH’s one or more major rival(s) dropped out of the auction, leaving only a handful of small regional players to fight a doomed battle with DISH over a few insignificant licenses like North Platte and Scottsbluff, NE. If that were not the case, then we would again have seen DISH make overbids when it held the NY or LA license itself and that would have manifested itself in two competing bids being made for these licenses if a competitor were present. The fact that no competing bids were offered in NY and LA after Round 1 strongly suggests that no competitors were bidding against DISH for these licenses after that point.

Even more significant than the slowing increase in overall bids (where the determining factor is clearly DISH bidding against itself), the increase in total bids for once contested licenses today has been only $1M-$2M per round, demonstrating that virtually no-one is still fighting against DISH. DISH therefore appears well set to capture all of the H-block licenses in the country that it wants, as it has enough spare eligibility to bid for all of these licenses (including those still held by the FCC) for many rounds to come. The fact that the FCC has now increased the pace of the auction to 5 rounds per day, starting Tuesday, also supports the view that DISH is the only bidder for most licenses and most other participants have dropped out.

Taking a wider view, many commentators will undoubtedly try and explain away the results of the H-block auction as an aberration, due to the lack of major competitors for DISH. However, even if you accept that view (and ignore the fact that an unprecedented amount of spectrum is being made available through auctions this year and next, which is likely to change the balance of demand and supply significantly), it still doesn’t give much comfort to those who believe that spectrum is a scarce, appreciating asset. After all, this auction has demonstrated that if, like LightSquared, you don’t have many buyers for your spectrum, you’re not going to be able to realize a high price for that asset.

01.18.14

Smackdown!

Posted in DISH, Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 6:16 pm by timfarrar

It seems that contrary to Phil Falcone’s testimony on Thursday, its not true that “if you talk to anybody, they’ll tell you LightSquared will get the FCC license” at least if that “anybody” is FCC Chairman Wheeler (who of course did talk to LightSquared just before Christmas). It seems he wanted to send that message loud and clear with a Friday evening court filing, telling Judge Chapman that:

“The FCC is not in a position to confirm whether it will able to complete the work required to act on each of the conditions specified in the FCC Exit Condition before December 31, 2014. It is also impossible to predict what decisions the Commission may reach on these matters.”

The filing went on to explain that the first Exit Condition in the LightSquared bankruptcy plan (which requires approval for use of LightSquared’s 20MHz of uplink spectrum) “is not solely within the FCC’s control” because “the FCC coordinates certain spectrum-related matters with the NTIA, which in turn consults with all federal stakeholders through the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee.”

That’s particularly important in view of a Bloomberg article earlier this month which indicated that “The Transportation Department, whose concerns that the LightSquared network could affect airliner navigation helped kill the company’s original plan, is withholding assent from the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee.” So in effect, the FCC is saying that if the DoT/FAA veto is maintained (and remember they would have to walk back the prediction that LightSquared’s operations could cause 800 deaths), it will not approve LightSquared’s application.

In addition, the filing noted that with respect to the second Exit Condition (which requires LightSquared to have gained approval to use the 10MHz of downlink spectrum between 1670-80MHz) “the FCC will need to conduct a notice-and-comment rulemaking process…[which] will include issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”), seeking comments from the public and adopting a Report and Order to allocate, develop service rules for and assign the [1675-80MHz] spectrum. At this time, it is not possible to provide any assurances that the processes outlined herein will be completed by December 31, 2014.”

This intervention potentially throws the LightSquared bankruptcy into chaos, and could leave Judge Chapman in a near impossible position, because as the FCC emphasized “Under the Revised Second Amended Plan, if the Effective Date has not occurred on or before December 31, 2014, the Plan shall be null and void.” We’ve already had DISH withdraw its bid, and as I noted the other day, it looks very much like DISH has alternative deals in mind. Commitments were also due on the LightSquared exit financing on Friday, and the FCC’s intervention could make the status of that financing even more uncertain.

So the question now is whether there is any feasible plan for Judge Chapman to confirm at this point in time? If she decides there is not, perhaps she could order the company to resume the auction of assets, this time without any conditionality on FCC approval. Would that mean Ergen jumping back in with a personal bid at a lower price? After all he suggested on Monday that had been a possibility, backed by a loan against his stake in EchoStar. Would the other LP debtholders compete against him (and put up cash to buy him out) if they weren’t going to get paid off at par plus accrued interest as they expected a few days ago?

Worryingly for LightSquared’s own reorganization plan, if the FCC intervention, which few expected at this point in time, is regarded as a direct smackdown in response to Falcone’s comments in court, that again raises the question of how big a “Phil risk premium” needs to be attached to the regulatory process, if Falcone maintains a substantial ownership stake in the company (even if he is no longer involved on a day-to-day basis, which seems to be the intent of the Fortress-backed plan).

After all, Senator Grassley (who has been a vocal critic of how “the FCC nearly granted billions of dollars in taxpayer assets to someone accused by our nation’s financial regulator of having ‘victimized’ ‘clients and market participants alike’ and leading a ‘graduate school course in how to operate a hedge fund unlawfully’”) was only too happy to give a statement for Bloomberg’s recent story about the lack of progress in Washington, and I’m sure that he won’t remain silent about any future FCC approvals while Phil remains involved with LightSquared.

01.09.14

The great game…

Posted in DISH, Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 9:42 am by timfarrar

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.

12.20.13

LightSquared’s time machine…

Posted in DISH, Financials, ICO/DBSD, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 3:19 pm by timfarrar

As we head towards the holiday season, LightSquared’s attempts to find an alternative to being bought by Charlie Ergen are becoming ever more desperate, as the December 24 deadline to put forward an alternative plan approaches and the company takes a “time machine back to the summer…to formulate from scratch their own refinancing plan
…like the failed effort with Jefferies.”

Reuters is reporting the terms of a $2B-$2.5B three year term loan to back a Fortress-sponsored exit plan as including 12% interest, all paid-in-kind, with an additional unspecified amount of equity injected into the company (presumably mostly achieved through rolling over existing investments). Unless a substantial amount of warrants are also included in this deal, the terms appear worse than those offered by Jefferies (and rejected by investors) back in July, which comprised mostly cash pay interest plus an ongoing ticking fee and substantial warrants.

We find it hard to imagine that the judge will be happy with a proposal which involves waiting another 6-9 months for an FCC decision, with no certainty at the end of the process, and which would presumably result in DISH terminating its non-contingent cash offer. Remember that there are numerous other uncertainties in the near future as well, including the resolution of LightSquared’s Mexican coordination negotiations, the Cooperation Agreement with Inmarsat, LightSquared’s difficult relationship with the DoD (which led to the termination of a contract accounting for one third of LightSquared’s total satellite revenue earlier this year) and most importantly the unprecedented amount of spectrum that will be auctioned by the FCC in 2014 and 2015. All of these issues are discussed in detail in our new 49 page LightSquared profile, released yesterday – please get in touch if you are interested in purchasing a copy.

The AWS-1 auction in 2006 provides one good example of how large amounts of new spectrum coming to the market can have a major effect on the perceived value of spectrum. Take for example ICO’s July 2005 Offering Memorandum, which suggested its spectrum was worth $1.64/MHzPOP, whereas after 2006, ICO had to use an AWS-1 benchmark instead (in that case the most optimistic number that could be justified was $0.73/MHzPOP for the 20MHz F-block spectrum).

One of the underrated issues that is still to play out in the bankruptcy (and a key sticking point in negotiation of DISH’s proposed Asset Purchase Agreement) was that DISH’s bid included acquiring all of the litigation rights of the LightSquared estate. The most obvious effect that would have is on LightSquared’s lawsuit against Ergen for buying up its debt. However, it would also have significant consequences for the suit against the GPS industry and potential litigation against the FCC: whereas LightSquared soon may have nothing to lose by employing scorched Earth tactics, we suspect DISH would look for a compromise that would be acceptable to all parties. Finally, DISH could even sue Harbinger on behalf of LightSquared investors who lost money as a result of the “guarantees” that there was no GPS interference problem whatsoever.

We should soon know if this will be Phil’s last gasp, so just like the Delorean above, he will find himself “OUTATIME” or if we will have many months more of uncertainty about the FCC process. Either way, it looks like it is no longer FCC Chairman Wheeler who will have an unhappy Christmas, but instead it will be Judge Chapman, who is charged with resolving the LightSquared bankruptcy case and now has to determine just how much of LightSquared’s “alarming and reckless” efforts to fend off DISH she will tolerate.

12.11.13

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.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

Posted in DISH, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 10:07 am by timfarrar

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.

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