11.15.19

Picking up the C-band pieces…

Posted in AT&T, Financials, Intelsat, Operators, Regulatory, SES, Spectrum, Verizon at 2:13 pm by timfarrar

It looks like the CBA’s offer today to make a (not particularly generous) defined contribution to the US Treasury may have come too late to rescue a private auction, with reports that FCC Chairman Pai will shortly lay out a plan for a public auction of the C-band spectrum. That comes after what I’m told was a call to Chairman Pai from President Trump, at the instigation of Sen. Kennedy, who has used increasingly heated rhetoric to demand a public auction in recent weeks.

The irony of that action will not be lost on those who remember Pai’s statement in March 2016 on the prior Commission’s net neutrality decision that “Moving forward, the Commission must recommit itself to being a truly independent agency that makes decisions based on the facts and the law, not on the whims of any White House.”

UPDATE (11/18): Chairman Pai has now announced that the FCC will conduct a public auction before the end of 2020. However, the FCC has also stated that the President “did not express an opinion” in his call to Chairman Pai, and it is “categorically false” that Trump drove the decision on a public auction. A bill to mandate a public auction, with at least 50% of the proceeds going to the Treasury, has also been introduced in the Senate, although it is unclear if it will be taken up expeditiously.

A great backgrounder on the issues involved was laid out by Harold Feld on Wednesday, where he points out that a major issue is that Congressional rules do not permit a “voluntary contribution” to be spent by Congress, unlike the proceeds from an FCC run auction. Moreover, Congress can spend whatever the CBO estimates the proceeds will be, and a ludicrously optimistic $50B-$60B figure is being widely banded about.

As Harold also points out, the FCC does have authority to repurpose the C-band spectrum in the public interest by only paying transition costs to the parties involved. However, he doesn’t note that in recent years Republican policy wonks such as Tom Hazlett have been encouraging private transactions to repurpose spectrum for its “highest and best use”, arguing (correctly) that FCC intervention has often directed spectrum to politically connected players rather than serving the public interest.

What the FCC does not have is authority to share the proceeds of a public auction with the satellite operators, unless it can contort the incentive auction statute (which requires at least two competing bidders) to fit this situation. However, if the FCC cannot share the proceeds with the satellite operators then not only will there be prolonged litigation, but the satellite industry may be plunged into even more of an existential crisis than it already faces from declining revenues and the loss of customers to terrestrial alternatives. Moreover, there will be no incentive for satellite operators to move swiftly to make the spectrum available for terrestrial use within the next three years.

As a result, there is a clear imperative for satellite operators to receive a meaningful proportion of the proceeds, which was recognized by the proposed Matsui bill earlier this summer. That bill would have allowed the satellite operators to keep 75% of the net proceeds if they had cleared 300MHz, as is now on the table (the current CBA offer is less generous to the government, despite specifying a minimum 30% voluntary contribution, because that contribution is “inclusive of all Federal income tax liabilities incurred by the CBA member companies as a direct result of the auction”). However, it is unclear whether any such legislation will be able to pass into law in the current fevered political climate, especially when Sen. Kennedy has railed against giving away “$60 billion that belongs to the people of America to two companies in Luxembourg and one other one in Canada”.

What options does that leave the FCC with? Well the most obvious possibility might be for the FCC to return to the original concept, before the October 2017 offer from Intelsat and Intel, and conduct a public overlay auction for spectrum rights in 300MHz of the C-band before the end of 2020. If the CBA can come up with a agreed, concrete price and timetable for clearing the spectrum for the benefit of the overlay rights holders, set at a level that is acceptable to the cellular operators, then the FCC can claim to have complied with the Congressional (and Presidential) demands to conduct a public auction, without needing new legislation or to work around the language of the incentive auction statute. Of course the public auction would then raise a much more limited amount of money, assuming the CBA is going to receive many billions of dollars for moving out of the spectrum and giving up its rights to this part of the band.

However, it is unclear whether the CBA is capable of agreeing to a specific clearing price in the short time remaining before Chairman Pai has to decide how to move forward. One of the biggest problems in this whole process has been how long it took to come up with a concrete commitment to clear 300MHz and now to publish a specific revenue share for the government. Of course the CBA has been worried that by publishing specific figures it would be bidding against itself. But by allowing the process the drag on for so long, it became possible for Sen. Kennedy and others to consolidate their opposition to a private sale.

Now that Eutelsat is on the sidelines (and has its own interests in worsening Intelsat’s financial position), it may be even more difficult to reach agreement. Investors’ unreasonable expectations about the price that could be realized in an auction, represent another barrier to agreeing a fixed clearing price with AT&T and Verizon. With 280MHz on offer, it is very hard to see how demand could significantly exceed supply, which would be needed for auction prices to rise to $50B or $60B. Verizon and AT&T are unlikely to spend more than $10B each to buy 100MHz per operator, and T-Mobile will not need to participate in a major way if its merger with Sprint goes through. Beyond that there are very few companies who will want to pay billions of dollars for C-band spectrum, because it makes little sense to start in that band as a potential new entrant. So I struggle to see the gross total raised from a C-band spectrum sale getting to more than $30B (~$0.30/MHzPOP).

More importantly, a fixed clearing price certainly could not exceed the amount AT&T and Verizon are collectively prepared to pay for their share of the spectrum (i.e. $20B), since they would be instrumental in negotiating that figure. More likely, AT&T and Verizon would be unwilling to agree to a clearing price above about $15B (if not less), leaving net proceeds after ~$3B of actual costs at roughly $5B each for Intelsat and SES. Compared to where we stood two years ago, when no value was attached to C-band spectrum, that seems like a pretty stunning achievement. But at this point in time, after two years of declines in the core satellite business, it would be unlikely to make Intelsat shareholders happy.

06.20.19

Charlie may be wrong, but he’s not stupid…

Posted in DISH, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 9:39 am by timfarrar

The news that DISH is negotiating to buy Boost and other assets, which T-Mobile and Sprint may be forced by the DoJ to dispose of as a condition to approving their merger has been met with near universal derision from commentators. Some suggest that Ergen is “holding out for a big payday from a hoard of idle spectrum he assembled over the past decade” and the purchase would allow him to “seek more time [from the FCC] while waiting for Verizon or Google or somebody to sweep in and buy him out of his big spectrum bet”, while others say “We’re not sure why that deal is sensible for anyone involved. Dish, remember, already has more spectrum than they know what to do with; what they lack is money and ground facilities, and the deal described on Friday wouldn’t deliver either one. Instead, it would make both problems worse.” Some even note that DISH itself told the FCC in May that “a standalone Boost would not provide ‘meaningful competition’”.

But what no-one seems to be able to explain is why, despite all these issues, DISH would therefore be pursuing a deal to acquire these assets. Does everyone believe that Charlie Ergen is stupid? Or that he’s desperate, and its all just a bluff with a weak poker hand? That’s ludicrous on its face, since both the FCC and the other wireless carriers would simply call that bluff: if he does nothing then the FCC will refuse to renew his wireless licenses next year, and we have known for almost 5 years that Verizon and AT&T don’t want anything to do with his spectrum, after he cost them $5B+ each by manipulating the AWS-3 auction outcome to push up the prices by bidding through three entities simultaneously.

It’s been obvious for most of the last year that Ergen has a plan to get something out of a T-Mobile/Sprint merger. He doesn’t hire expensive economic experts and consultants to submit lengthy analyses simply to block a deal (as an aside, 10 years ago I was an expert witness for DISH in the DBSD bankruptcy, where DISH was ultimately successful in securing the spectrum assets). So what does he want? Boost is not that important, though getting some of Sprint’s 2.5GHz spectrum (which DISH tried to buy from Clearwire back in 2013) might be helpful, and a hosting agreement is even more critical.

After all, DISH already had an agreement lined up with T-Mobile to host the network it planned with Google back in 2015-16. And it’s very likely that some 2.5GHz spectrum is on offer, because the sale would hardly have attracted much interest from cable operators, who (as new entrants) would need to acquire significant amounts of spectrum, if all they gained was some 800MHz and 1.9GHz spectrum without much of a roadmap to 5G. So for the mooted $6B+ price tag, with a valuation of less than $3B for Boost, it is conceivable that DISH could acquire perhaps 20-30MHz of spectrum, depending on the mix of urban and rural areas and whether it is leased (EBS) or owned (BRS). I’d guess DISH might take more leased EBS spectrum at a lower price, since that is likely to gain in value now the band is going to be restructured by the FCC and overlay spectrum will be auctioned.

Even so, if all DISH secured was some assets from T-Mobile and Sprint, then critics are correct to observe that it is almost inconceivable that DISH alone could become a meaningful fourth competitor in the mobile market. Unless DISH has a major partner lined up behind the scenes, then it is setting out on a doomed path, and as I noted, Ergen knows this and is not stupid. He’s said previously on multiple occasions that a full scale wireless buildout would cost $10B and that he wouldn’t do that without a partner. Indeed he’s hinted at partnership interest from “unexpected places” in recent months.

It looked like DISH might have had a deal lined up with Amazon at the end of the incentive auction in April 2017, but it appears that Amazon was considering three multi-billion dollar investments in parallel at that time (DISH wireless, Slack and Whole Foods) and selected Whole Foods as the initial priority. But there’s no suggestion that Amazon permanently ruled out such a deal, and with Amazon reported to have taken its own look at Boost a few weeks ago, it is eminently possible that Amazon could be a silent and unreported partner for DISH in this effort. That certainly seems far more plausible than Amazon and DISH being rival bidders for these assets.

So can Ergen pull this off? DISH appears to be in the lead for now, and a sale to DISH appears to be the preferred outcome from the DoJ’s perspective. Incidentally that’s another strong reason to believe DISH already has a major partner like Amazon essentially lined up, since its hard to believe Ergen wasn’t asked that question in his meeting with Pai and Delrahim last week. And although there are possible alternatives like Rakuten, in the current political climate it’s likely that the DoJ’s preference would be for DISH to partner with another American company.

Another argument raised by some who don’t believe a DISH-Amazon partnership is likely, is that they think T-Mobile wouldn’t want to enable such a potentially threatening competitor. But as I titled this post, it is certainly possible that Ergen is wrong, in that it won’t be that easy for a new entrant to break into the market, even in partnership with Amazon, and that 5G won’t mark a revolution in how wireless is used, so churn will continue to be low. In those circumstances it would make a lot of sense for T-Mobile and Sprint to complete their merger, and deploy their 2.5GHz spectrum to add capacity at much lower cost. What no-one should assume is that Ergen is stupid and is making an irrational multi-billion dollar bet on either a doomed standalone strategy or a spectrum sale to AT&T or Verizon.

05.09.19

Backing winners?

Posted in Broadband, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 3:13 pm by timfarrar

I noted a couple of weeks ago that SpaceX was putting the FCC under considerable pressure to approve its April 5 request for Special Temporary Authority to operate its initial tranche of Starlink satellites. However, rather than giving approval for this STA, on April 26 the FCC instead approved SpaceX’s November 2018 license modification.

Buried in this order is a key waiver sought by SpaceX, which is fundamentally different from the authorizations granted to other NGSO players (including Theia, whose license was approved at today’s FCC Open Meeting):

28. Waiver of ITU Finding Required Under Section 25.146(a). In the SpaceX Authorization, the Commission required that SpaceX receive a favorable or “qualified favorable” finding from the ITU with respect to compliance with applicable EPFD limits in Article 22 of the ITU Radio Regulations prior to commencing operations. SpaceX asserts that the ITU will not examine the modified filing in this respect anytime soon and in light of its expedited deployment schedule, requests a waiver of this condition prior to the initiation of service. OneWeb and the GSO Satellite Operators, request that the Commission deny SpaceX’s waiver request. SES and O3b, argue that any waiver grant addresses the timing of the ITU filing and is conferred at SpaceX’s own risk. Given the ITU’s timeframe for examining SpaceX’s modified filing and the fact that SpaceX presents EPFD calculations using the ITU software, we agree that this condition should not deter SpaceX start of operations. Thus, SpaceX’s request for waiver of the requirement to receive a favorable or “qualified favorable” finding prior to commencing operations is granted. We retain the requirement, however, that SpaceX receive the favorable or “qualified favorable” finding from the ITU, and in case of an unfavorable finding, adjust its operation to satisfy the ITU requirements. Accordingly, operations of SpaceX’s system, as modified prior to the ITU’s finding, are at SpaceX’s own risk.

While other systems like Theia are required to receive ITU approval “prior to the initiation of service”, SpaceX has now been given permission to provide service over the Starlink system unless and until a final ITU finding is published. This appears to reflect the FCC’s view of SpaceX as a potential winner in the NGSO race and a desire to enable operations to begin as soon as possible. In addition, SpaceX appears to be receiving strong backing from other agencies within the US government for the capabilities that Starlink is expected to make available.

So next week on May 15, SpaceX plans to launch “dozens of satellites” (perhaps as many as 40-50 from what I’ve heard in Washington DC this week), although it remains unclear what technologies are actually onboard these satellites. It seems that the satellites include a variety of different designs (launching everything “including the kitchen sink”) and there may even be some non-communications payloads onboard.

It appears that the launch will be accompanied by a publicity blitz to set the scene for a major fundraising effort immediately thereafter, with one feature of this PR campaign being SpaceX’s production line in Redmond, described to me as “more impressive” than OneWeb’s factory in Florida. But SpaceX clearly believes that numbers are important, and will be comparing the number of satellites it has launched to the 6 satellites launched by OneWeb in February. So I expect SpaceX’s fundraising target will also exceed the $1.25B raised by OneWeb in March and will include more of the wild predictions we’ve heard for Tesla in recent weeks as well as on the SpaceX fundraising call in early April.

That sets the scene for a race between OneWeb and SpaceX to launch as many satellites as possible in the next 6-12 months: OneWeb is claiming it will be launching 35 satellites per month starting in the fall, and SpaceX is suggesting it may also have 2-6 more launches by the end of the year (helpfully filling a hole in its Falcon 9 manifest as the demand for GEO launches continues to slow, but clearly requiring a substantial financial commitment).

In comparison, other proposed systems like Telesat and LeoSat will be far behind, and even though these systems may have designs which are more optimized for their target markets, it could become increasingly difficult for either system to attract the attention and funding they need to move forward, without backing from major strategic investors. Speculation is likely to focus on Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans, but unlike Elon Musk’s “build it and they will come” mentality, I expect Jeff Bezos is more likely to want to put together a solid plan before committing to spend many billions of dollars on such an effort.

But the most important thing of all is whether investors believe Elon Musk’s predictions and will now throw billions of dollars at his Starlink vision. A shortfall in the amount raised, as seems to have been the case in all of SpaceX’s various funding rounds over the last year, will keep the pressure on the company after a series of costly issues (most notably the loss of the Crew Dragon capsule). On the other hand, if he is able to raise a couple of billion dollars, SpaceX and OneWeb could make this into a two horse LEO constellation race over the next couple of years. So I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see the launch next week and what the subsequent fundraising effort reveals about investors’ confidence in both the project and (more importantly) in Elon himself.

04.08.19

High Times…

Posted in Broadband, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 9:43 am by timfarrar

Last week, on hearing the news of Amazon’s Project Kuiper LEO constellation plans, my immediate reaction was that it looked like “a good way to make it even harder for SpaceX to raise their next funding round”. Unsurprisingly, that turns out to be exactly the situation, because I’m told that Elon Musk held a lengthy conference call with SpaceX investors last week to seek additional funding for Starlink, ahead of the next launch (which has now been announced to be “no earlier than May”).

SpaceX is seeking to complete a near term equity raise (apparently limited to existing investors) at a valuation of $32B, and has made some outlandish claims about the potential for Starlink, similar to (if not even more exaggerated than) the widely ridiculed business plan published in the Wall St Journal back in January 2017, with many tens or even hundreds of millions of subscribers relying on the constellation. Jumping onboard with others, but exaggerating further, Starlink’s flat panel terminal is claimed to be capable of 100Mbps, but will cost only $500 at launch, falling to $150 over time. Moreover, the cost of the 4000+ satellites is said to be around half a million dollars each, including launch, implying total capex of less than $3B.

Meanwhile, Amazon continues to troll SpaceX, hiring the former leaders of Starlink, who Musk fired for wanting “more iterations of test satellites” rather than “cheaper and simpler satellites, sooner” and posting over 70 jobs in Bellevue, WA in an attempt to lure away additional engineers from Starlink facility in nearby Redmond.

So can Bezos derail SpaceX’s satellite internet plans, which may be the last avenue left to raise money for SpaceX, as the demand for launches continues to decline and its backlog nears exhaustion? Are people starting to doubt Elon Musk’s claims? Or does Musk still have enough believers amongst the existing SpaceX investors, including Google, which may have many reasons of its own to push back against Amazon?

UPDATE (4/19): The WSJ reported on SpaceX’s new funding round on April 15, noting that Gwynne Shotwell had expressed doubts over the prospects for Starlink in a February interview (although the outlandish claims I noted above were of course made by Elon Musk in the first week of April, not by Shotwell). It then emerged in an April 17 SEC filing that initial fundraising attempts had been largely unsuccessful, with only $44M out of $400M raised to date, suggesting that SpaceX’s approach, described to me as “you’ve got 24 hours to wire us the money or we’ll get it from someone else”, appears to have backfired.

So that makes me wonder quite how much financial pressure SpaceX is now under. Certainly SpaceX is putting considerable pressure on others, notably the FCC, where it filed on April 5 for Special Temporary Authority to operate its initial tranche of Starlink satellites. SpaceX claims these satellites will be launched in “early May”, despite it not having received approval for the revised constellation plan that was filed in November 2018 and not even specifying how many satellites will be in this “initial tranche”.

Given the complexities inherent in assessing SpaceX’s “iterative design” which will initially “use only Ku-band spectrum” and subsequently “phase the Ka-band antennas back into subsequent generations”, it is hardly surprising that it has taken the FCC some time to make a decision on whether to grant a license modification (indeed the FCC is only now proposing to grant a license for Theia’s NGSO system that was filed back in November 2016). Moreover, the mess that resulted from Swarm’s unapproved launch in 2018, led the FCC to caution satellite launch providers such as SpaceX that “a satellite integrated into a launch vehicle or deployment device without a current FCC authorization may need to be removed from that vehicle or deployment device if the satellite operator’s application for an FCC authorization is not acted upon favorably, or for various reasons cannot be granted within a time frame consistent with the launch schedule.”

So will the FCC bend under the pressure that SpaceX is exerting? Even then, would the launch of a few more demo satellites persuade investors that it’s now worth putting more money into SpaceX to fund a questionable (some would say non-existent) Starlink business plan? Or is this going to end badly, with SpaceX running out of cash to fund both Starlink and its new Starship development projects? Certainly the idea that “the decision to open a second $500M funding round just months after the first also bodes well for demand” (as opposed to indicating that SpaceX is experiencing a cash crunch) seems about as plausible as Musk’s recent suggestion that Starship should be fitted with “giant stainless steel dragon wings”. High times indeed!

02.09.19

Splitting the C-band baby

Posted in AT&T, Financials, Intelsat, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 2:02 pm by timfarrar

It’s now just over a year since I first wrote about the possibility of a “pioneering market-based transfer of [C-band] spectrum to higher value uses” which could allow satellite operators to sell part of the C-band to boost Verizon’s 5G network capacity. In that time, the process has moved forward significantly, with the FCC issuing an NPRM in July, to which comments and reply comments were received late last year.

Opposition from the cable companies has been growing, as they’ve become scared by the prospect of new wireless broadband competition, with Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T all admitting that they have no better plan than to use the huge amounts of capacity that their new 5G networks will create, to compete in the fixed broadband market.

But it was truly ironic to see New America and Google team up with the cable industry last week to claim that the plan put forward in the NPRM for a private market transaction represents “The Great Airwaves Robbery” because satellite operators rather than the Treasury will receive the proceeds. Not only are these very odd bedfellows, but Google has traditionally been on the side of freeing up more spectrum and encouraging broadband competition, rather than trying to block such an effort.

However, it now seems that if Google can’t get what it wants in the C-band (meaning essentially free access to the band on a shared basis), it will seek to derail the plan for a market-based approach. While one reason for Google to mount this effort is to prevent C-band from undermining interest in the CBRS band in which has invested a lot of time and resources, a cynic might also say that Google would prefer a “Political Spectrum” where the FCC would be able to insert policy provisions that suit Google, especially since an FCC-run auction wouldn’t take place until after the next Presidential election in November 2020.

That’s certainly been the case in the past, when Google persuaded (Republican) FCC Chair Kevin Martin to include Open Access provisions covering the upper C-block into the rules for the 700MHz auction in 2008. Of course, despite the fact that the Open Access conditions ultimately proved to have no effect on the wireless market, Google didn’t care that these provisions meant that the C-block spectrum sold (to Verizon) for less than half the price of the unrestricted paired A and B blocks, costing the Treasury something like $6B in auction proceeds.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the various sides of the C-band debate appear to want to capture all of the benefits for themselves, without looking for a compromise solution. This includes the satellite operators, where Preston Padden of the C-band Alliance (CBA) has claimed that there is “no alternative” to the CBA Plan, which gives all of the control and sale proceeds to the satellite operators. In fact there is a fairly simple compromise option, which follows the traditional FCC model of splitting the baby, so everyone gets something out of the process. That was followed back in 2003, when the initial approval of Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) flexibility for MSS operators was given in exchange for 30MHz of the 70MHz of 2GHz band MSS spectrum being reallocated to terrestrial services (this ultimately became the G block and H block spectrum).

So a relatively simple solution at this point would be to allow the satellite operators to sell the 180MHz of spectrum at the bottom of the C-band, and keep the proceeds (part of which would be used to pay for new satellites and filters to enable continuation of video delivery in the remaining 300MHz of spectrum), while the FCC conducted an overlay auction of terrestrial mobile licenses in the rest of the band (excluding a modest guardband of perhaps 50-100MHz below 4200MHz to preserve key services and protect aeronautical users in the 4200-4400MHz band). Purchasers of the overlay licenses (which would cost considerably less than the spectrum being sold by the CBA) would then be able to pay C-band earth station owners to move their earth stations away from major cities or migrate them to fiber, in order to clear the spectrum in high demand areas, with no additional compensation due to the satellite operators (since the satellite operators would already be receiving a windfall from the spectrum they sold).

All parties could then be compensated: the satellite operators would receive proceeds from selling 180MHz of spectrum (potentially worth $11B-$18B at $0.20-$0.30/MHzPOP), the Treasury would receive proceeds from the overlay auction (potentially worth $4B-$5B from selling 270MHz at $0.05/MHzPOP) and the earth station operators would receive compensation if they decided to migrate to fiber or relocate their earth stations to clear the overlay spectrum. And both the FCC and the wireless operators would be happy, with T-Mobile’s demand for 300MHz+ to be made available being met if they bought the overlay licenses and paid to clear the spectrum in the areas where they needed spectrum, while Verizon and AT&T could get the spectrum they need in the near term by agreeing a deal with the CBA. Even Google could acquire spectrum in the overlay auction, if they really did want to buy spectrum, rather than just prevent others from getting hold of it.

Of course the cable operators might not be happy with the additional competition for their broadband business, but they would also have the option to acquire spectrum in the overlay auction, and compete in the wireless market themselves, especially since they would have an easier time clearing their own earth stations out of the band. And if they didn’t want to do that, they could hold out for compensation from the holders of the overlay licenses.

Will the CTIA and the wireless operators now be prepared to push for such a compromise? Will the satellite operators accept that they can’t have it all? And will the cable operators and Google accept that blocking the reallocation of C-band spectrum to terrestrial is an unacceptable outcome? That depends on whether the FCC is willing to rule that none of the parties should get all of what they want, but everyone can get something.

11.09.18

The New New Space Thing…

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 5:32 pm by timfarrar

Michael Lewis’s book “The New New Thing” was published the same week as I moved to Silicon Valley in October 1999 and provided a great tour through the landscape at the high point of the Dotcom Bubble, just as his Liar’s Poker was a signature story of the 1980s Wall Street boom. Unfortunately we don’t have anything quite the same about New Space, although Tim Fernholz’s book comes close.

However, just as it was obvious back in 1999 quite how untethered Silicon Valley had become from real world business models, the New New Space industry seems intent on demonstrating the same about the space sector. In recent months I’ve heard about numerous planned nano-satellite constellations that are struggling to raise funding (beyond their $10M or so in proof of concept venture capital) and may run out of money soon, because they simply don’t have a credible business plan.

Looking elsewhere, it seems that 5G IoT and “Armani WiFi” are not really such convincing buzzwords after all (sorry Charlie and Jay), and Ligado’s lobbyists can’t outwit Brad Parkinson’s “fervent ally” in the White House, so some if not all of those multi-billion dollar investments will soon prove to be a complete debacle as well.

But the poster child for the bursting of the bubble can be seen in SpaceX’s increasing frantic attempts to raise money in the face of a rapid decline in launch demand, and increasing competition from Blue Origin, which doesn’t need to make a profit. Firing your bankers because they are nervous about how much additional debt you will take on in the future is a bad sign, and redesigning your constellation to hide its problems seems even more bizarre.

SpaceX’s launch tempo is already falling, with 10 launches now scheduled for the second half of 2018 compared to 12 in the first half, far short of the 50% increase in 2018 launches and medium term 30-40 launches per year that the company predicted only a year ago. So its an open question what the core business is worth, but with $270M in LTM adjusted EBITDA (which counts deposits and excludes some R&D) and a declining revenue outlook for 2019, the valuation of $28B achieved this spring is clearly ludicrous.

SpaceX’s attempts to find new sources of revenue are also proving deeply problematic because the broadband satellite constellation business now appears to be in even more dire straits than the launch business. Recently rumors have circulated that SoftBank is looking to exit from OneWeb (before the next tranche of its $1B equity commitment is due after the test satellites are launched in early 2019), as the system costs increase and questions abound over the size of the market opportunity for satellite broadband. Certainly Masa Son’s attitude to the project appears to have changed dramatically in the last year, from touting satellite as an alternative to fiber, to not even mentioning satellite in a recent lengthy feature on the Vision Fund.

And finally, given the lack of demand for launch services, the need for the BFR now seems highly questionable, except as a vehicle for space tourism. Since SpaceX is likely to have investment needs of $1B+ per year just for BFR and the debt capacity of the company is unlikely to be more than about $2B, it therefore wouldn’t be in the least surprising if the company’s next step in 2019 is to start taking more deposits from potential tourists who want to emulate Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. In the meantime, soliciting contracts from anyone who might offer a cash deposit seems like another avenue SpaceX will be exploring.

Looking back once again to 1999, it seems quite relevant to note that the first major meltdown (the Iridium bankruptcy) came in August 1999, well before the bursting of the wider tech bubble. And it now appears that there are several multi-billion dollar satellite projects that could suffer the same fate within the next year. What will that mean for investor perceptions? Will incumbents benefit? And which elements of this new technology will prove to be useful in the long run?

09.28.18

Fake it till you make it?

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 1:03 pm by timfarrar

As students of history and those who were there at the time (such as FCC International Bureau chief Jose Albuquerque) know only too well, sometimes a dud satellite can be just as good as a real one for promoters of a new broadband LEO system. Back in February 1998, the Teledesic BATSAT apparently never worked properly (some say not at all), but the launch was instrumental in causing Prince Alwaleed to invest $200M in the company in April and more importantly in persuading Motorola to abandon its own Celestri LEO system and join forces with Teledesic in May 1998, investing $750M for a 26% stake.

So the question now is whether SpaceX is in the same position with Starlink? After all, when basking in the glow of apparent back-to-back successes with Falcon Heavy and Starlink during February 2018, followed by receipt of its constellation license from the FCC, SpaceX raised $500M the following month at a reported valuation as high as $27B, supposedly to develop the Starlink constellation.

And subsequently, SpaceX has been positioning itself to play a role in DARPA’s Blackjack satellite constellation program, which will provide total funding of up to $117.5M to be split between several bidders. Notably, SpaceX filed a new experimental application with the FCC in August 2018 “to reflect additional test activities undertaken with the federal government” and add “two new types of earth stations, one of which will transmit uplink signals to the Microsat satellites first from the ground and later from a moving aircraft”. In that application, SpaceX told the FCC that:

“These experimental engineering verification vehicles are currently engaged in the test regimen as authorized, in order to enable the company to assess the satellite bus and related subsystems, as well as the operation of space-based and ground-based phased array technologies.”

As he looks to secure both DARPA funding (which should be announced in the next couple of weeks) and FCC approval of the new experimental license application, Elon Musk is certainly extraordinarily sensitive to any suggestion that there might be a problem with Starlink. Notably, within a few hours after my previous blog post appeared on September 18, it seems he planted a (rather bizarre) question on Twitter so that he could state that “Starlink should be active by then [2023]“. Indeed, he was so keen to get this assertion out there that the same question was posted twice.

And if we look back to Elon’s previous tweet about the status of Starlink, its hard to believe it was purely a coincidence that this information was released the day after DARPA’s Blackjack solicitation.

But the reality is that the Starlink satellites have not performed in accordance with the plan that SpaceX presented to the FCC as recently as February 1, 2018, when Patricia Cooper told the FCC that:

“As set out in the original application, after system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, SpaceX will engage in orbit-raising maneuvers until the spacecraft reach a circular orbit at an altitude of 1,125km.”

And the original application stated that:

“After system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, the orbit-raising phase of the mission will commence. This segment will last approximately half a year depending on system performance.”

But what has actually happened? Both satellites have remained around the launch altitude of 514km, with TinTin A not showing any meaningful evidence of propulsion since at least early March, and TinTin B not experiencing any significant change in altitude after attempting a few orbital maneuvers. So it seems all but certain that there has been a major issue with the propulsion system onboard both of the Starlink satellites.

When confronted with the rumors of a satellite failure by SpaceIntelReport, SpaceX stated that the satellites “were delivered to their intended orbit, communicated with ground stations, continue to communicate with ground stations, and remain in operation today.” That may all be true, but says nothing about whether the propulsion system has failed.

Unsurprisingly such a failure would put SpaceX in a very awkward position, when there were already many questions about whether Starlink would go forward, not least because the satellites may not reach the correct orbit to bring SpaceX’s ITU filing into use, and the FCC’s experimental authorization was based on the assumption that mission operations would be conducted at 1125km. And if SpaceX cannot build satellites with a reliable propulsion system, that would reinforce concerns expressed by FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel in SpaceX’s license grant that “the FCC has to tackle the growing challenge posed by orbital debris.”

09.18.18

420,000 km. Funding secured!

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 7:32 am by timfarrar

Yes I know it’s only 384,000 km to the Moon, but just like Elon, I decided to round up. After all, it’s apparently “better karma”!

Last night’s SpaceX event raised a lot of questions for many observers, not least because it “caught some SpaceX employees off guard” and was rushed out so fast that some of the promotional imagery was incorrect. However, I suspect that the reason for this surprise announcement was to distract from impending bad news about the Starlink project, namely that the project has for all intents and purposes been put on hold.

We already knew that there was a significant reduction in hiring in early July, but I’m told the cutbacks went much deeper, with a significant fraction of the Starlink team departing. SpaceX was also looking to develop a more concrete business plan for the project in Q2, but I believe it proved impossible to come up with anything remotely close to the ludicrous forecasts from 2016 reported by the Wall St Journal that suggested the project would have over 40M subscribers and $30B in annual revenues by 2025.

Ironically enough, the principal mention of Starlink last night was as a source of funding for the BFR development. It makes no sense whatsoever to think that Starlink will generate profits to fund a $5B+ BFR development between now and 2023, so the only logical conclusion is that money raised for Starlink will now be diverted to the BFR. Another hint that Starlink is going away was the statement that BFR is expected to consume the majority of engineering resources after the commercial crew development has been completed for NASA next year, despite Starlink supposedly costing more to develop than BFR ($10B+ compared to ~$5B) over the next 5 years.

However, without Starlink to support the business plan, SpaceX will face significant challenges in sustaining its reported $27B valuation, as it grapples with an expected reduction from 28 to 18 launches next year, which will very likely cause overall revenues to decline in 2019. It’s also notable that when Viasat decided to contract with ULA (seeking a US launch provider so as to support its upcoming expected request for Ex-Im Bank funding), it reportedly did not even invite SpaceX to bid, presumably because of a lack of confidence in the future of Falcon Heavy (since the upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5 will now suffice for most GEO satellites).

It’s only natural that SpaceX would look for a replacement market that can be projected to generate billions of dollars of profitable revenue, and the company now appears to have settled on space tourism, as previewed by Gwynne Shotwell last week, when she suggested that it “will probably be the majority of our business in the future, flying people” with “7 billion potential payloads“.

However, the critical question is whether investors will remain sanguine about such a dramatic transformation in where over 80% of SpaceX’s future revenues are supposed to come from. Do investors that thought they were investing in the future of connectivity, really want to invest in taking rich people to space? And does the checkered track record of space tourism give them confidence that Elon’s promises will actually be realized, especially as it will take 5+ years and $5B+ of additional investment (even by Elon’s optimistic estimates) before the BFR is ready to transport passengers to the Moon?

05.22.18

Please don’t throw me into the briar patch!

Posted in Intelsat, Operators, Regulatory, SES, Spectrum at 4:50 pm by timfarrar

It took a while, but it seems that in April investors in Intelsat finally noticed my January blog post, and started to believe in the potential for a windfall from C-band monetization, causing the share price to jump from well under $5 to over $14 now. That’s brought out a lot of new skeptics, who are highlighting differences in both the share price performance and results call commentary at Intelsat and SES.

Some even appear to believe that SES is opposed to ever monetizing more than 100MHz of spectrum, when in fact Intelsat and SES have jointly conveyed the opposite message to the FCC, stating in April:

“For these reasons, Intelsat and SES have proposed an amount of spectrum clearing – 100 MHz available for terrestrial mobile use plus additional transition band spectrum needed to ensure that 5G operations are compatible with ongoing Fixed Satellite Service (“FSS”) to customers in the uncleared spectrum – that they believe can reasonably be accomplished within 18-36 months following a final Commission order. The Parties stated that if the terrestrial demand for mid-band spectrum is as robust as claimed, their market-based approach could result in additional spectrum being cleared in the future – but in a manner and timeframe that protects Intelsat’s and SES’s customers and their businesses.”

So it’s hard to understand why people would see Commissioner O’Rielly’s remarks that “To make this worthwhile, an adequate amount of spectrum – at least 200 or 300 megahertz to start – needs to be made available in this band” as a sign of opposition to a private transaction. That’s especially true when he also said that “This method provides an attractive option that should be thoroughly considered, particularly because of the speed in which it could bring the spectrum to market” and it aligns perfectly with Republican ideals, as described in Tom Hazlett’s book “The Political Spectrum”, that the FCC should allow market forces to reallocate spectrum to the highest and best use.

Certainly there are concerns about the pace of reallocation, given the complexity of moving current users around, and ultimately unwinding the substantial cross-subsidies from large to small cable companies that are inherent in the way distribution of content via satellite is paid for today. However, an outcome along the lines of “sell 100MHz now, then another 200MHz+ within 5 years” (with the option to clear the remainder within say 10 years), is certainly plausible.

At that point any complaints from satellite operators about being forced to clear too much spectrum would be reminiscent of Brer Rabbit saying to Brer Fox “please don’t throw me into the briar patch” because even skeptics like FT Alphaville indicate that the C-band spectrum should be worth more than the ~$0.13/MHzPOP paid in the recent UK spectrum auction (£1164M for 200MHz of spectrum from 3400-3600MHz), putting a valuation in excess of $20B on the entire 500MHz spectrum band.

Another concern expressed by skeptics is that any proceeds would take years to be realized, which is hard to comprehend for the first 100MHz of spectrum (worth $4B+ according to the FT’s assumption), since as in all spectrum sales, the buyer pays upfront and only then is the spectrum cleared. Indeed, if Intelsat and SES were to accept a pre-emptive offer for this initial slice of spectrum (as suggested in my January blog post), a deal could be even in hand at the time that a final FCC order is issued, rather than a process being run after the order is approved. Assuming the initial NPRM is issued soon (plausibly at the July FCC open meeting), that could advance the timing of receipts to the middle of 2019 rather than the very end of 2019 or more likely some time in 2020.

One remaining question raised above relates to the divergent performance of Intelsat and SES’s share price in recent months. But I think this is easily explained by investors believing that SES might well re-invest any windfall into more O3b satellites (where the ultimate return on capital is far from certain), while Intelsat will pay off its debts, stop spending money on new satellites, and return capital to shareholders.

Indeed if you believe that the future of large parts of the FSS industry could look a lot like the dial-up internet business in the mid-2000s, the best bet for Intelsat might then be to sell off its Ku-band data satellites to OneWeb and run the company purely to generate cash from running its legacy satellites and from monetizing its spectrum over time.

So despite me being one of the most skeptical people around on the ability of DISH, Ligado or Globalstar to realize a windfall from their spectrum holdings, I simply don’t understand why investors who apparently don’t know much about spectrum issues think now is a good time to be shorting Intelsat. In early 2017, I didn’t believe that Straight Path would find a buyer that was desperate to establish a leadership position in 5G spectrum in the shape of Verizon, let alone draw AT&T into a bidding war (not least because much more mmWave spectrum will be auctioned in the future). Though at least I wasn’t alone, because even Straight Path’s management was left in disbelief about the result.

But with that as the example, and the C-band now representing the most obvious (and perhaps only) opportunity to acquire a very large block of spectrum for high power mobile use, with much better propagation characteristics than mmWave spectrum and at a fraction of the price of DISH, Ligado or Globalstar’s spectrum, I think it would be foolish to assume that a Straight Path-like outcome won’t happen again.

01.29.18

The art of the deal…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 5:40 am by timfarrar

Before yesterday’s Axios article suggesting that President Trump’s National Security Council has set its sights on using the 3.7-4.2GHz satellite C-band downlink spectrum for a national 5G network, it was clear that analysts were underestimating the importance of this spectrum band for the US wireless industry. For example, Morgan Stanley’s January 17 downgrade of DISH Network identified Verizon as the “only suitor” for DISH’s spectrum but only suggested the CBRS auction as an alternative option for Verizon to acquire more spectrum.

It seems few people have read the reply comments filed by wireless operators in the FCC’s mid-band spectrum proceeding last November, where Verizon suggested there should be a a near term NPRM with market-based clearance mechanisms, rather than FCC-run auctions for this band. In contrast, AT&T asked for “substantial record development, including additional analysis and modeling” before the FCC moves forward with an NPRM, and T-Mobile said the FCC should reject Intelsat’s proposal and instead take control of the auction process, with a defined post-auction band plan and payments to incumbents from the auction proceeds, part of which would fund the clearance of existing users.

A logical conclusion is that Verizon believes it could be the sole player to acquire spectrum rights in this band (to supplement its 5G mmWave buildout plans) via a deal with Intelsat, while AT&T has relatively little interest due to its focus on the 700MHz FirstNet buildout and securing additional mmWave spectrum allocations, and T-Mobile is trying to ensure that Verizon is unable to monopolize this spectrum band by asking for a more open auction process.

One important consideration is that the power restrictions that will apply to the CBRS band to permit spectrum sharing may not be necessary above 3.7GHz and therefore with MIMO this band could be deployed for urban coverage on approximately the same cell grid used for PCS and AWS spectrum, as Qualcomm and Nokia have indicated, and as is planned in Europe, where the 3.4-3.8GHz band is being auctioned.

Since the reply comments were filed, Intelsat has continued to push hard for a near-term NPRM and given the difficulties that the FCC would encounter in defining how a “market-based” transaction should occur, it is entirely plausible that an exclusive spectrum deal between Intelsat and Verizon could be struck shortly after a draft NPRM was issued. By selling say 100MHz of spectrum to Verizon, Intelsat would establish a benchmark valuation for its C-band spectrum assets, while being able to maintain existing video distribution services within the remaining 400MHz of spectrum. Of course, Verizon would also presumably be happy to see Charlie Ergen left at the altar without his “only suitor”.

The Trump NSC memo only serves to increase the pressure to execute such a transaction, and pre-empt any (still remote) possibility of the spectrum being “nationalized”. Verizon could certainly promise to build a 5G network using this spectrum within 3 years, without government intervention, and gain an even more concrete lead in 5G network superiority. Meanwhile Intelsat (and other satellite operators including SES) could keep providing their existing C-band video distribution services and receive billions in cash plus additional billions in attributed spectrum value for the remaining 400MHz of spectrum, and the FCC could achieve a pioneering market-based transfer of spectrum to higher value uses. What’s not to like about that deal (unless you are AT&T, T-Mobile or DISH)?

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