So now Trump has won the White House, the opportunity for Globalstar to secure approval for its Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS) that was first proposed four years ago has finally disappeared. Instead of a 22MHz WiFi Channel 14, that was supposed to have access to a “massive and immediate ecosystem” (an assertion that was challenged by opponents), Globalstar is now asking for a low power terrestrial authorization in only its 11.5MHz of licensed spectrum.
That takes us back essentially to the compromise that Jay Monroe rejected in summer 2015, apparently because he didn’t believe that it would be possible to monetize the spectrum for low power LTE. However, with the FCC still keen to allow Iridium to share more of the L-band MSS spectrum for NEXT, and even Google supporting the concept of Globalstar using only its licensed spectrum for terrestrial operations, an approval seems very plausible in the near term, albeit with a further comment period required on the proposed license modification, as Globalstar acknowledges in its ex parte letter.
UPDATE (11/11): This email, produced earlier in the year by the FCC in response to a FOIA request, gives some further insight into the key June 2015 meeting with Globalstar that I referred to in my post. With its reference to “the conditions for operation in Channels 12 and 13″ and changes to “out-of-band emission levels in the MSS licensed spectrum” it seems clear that FCC staff were contemplating operation by unlicensed users right up to the 2483.5MHz boundary at least, presumably in conjunction with some reciprocity for Globalstar to operate below 2483.5MHz. Thus the deal proposed by FCC staff (although not necessarily validated with Commissioners’ offices) and rejected by Globalstar appears to have been somewhat different to this latest proposal from Globalstar (and perhaps more similar to the Public Knowledge proposals of shared use that came to the fore later in 2015). However, it seems hard to argue that the deal on the table in summer 2015 wouldn’t have been more favorable to Globalstar (due to the ability to actually offer a full 22MHz TLPS WiFi channel), if approved by Commissioners, than Globalstar’s latest proposal.
So the question now becomes, is there value in a non-standard 10MHz TDLTE channel, which is restricted to operate only at low power? Back in June 2015, I noted that there clearly would be some value for standard high power operation, but the question is a very different one for a low power license. After all, even Jay didn’t believe this type of authorization would have meaningful value last year.
Of course, its only to be expected that lazy analysts will cite the Sprint leaseback deal, which supposedly represented a huge increase in the value of 2.5GHz spectrum (though in practice this deal included cherry picked licenses for owned spectrum in top markets, and the increase in value was actually quite modest). And they will also presumably overlook the impact of the power restrictions and lack of ecosystem.
What is really critical is whether Globalstar could use such an approval to raise further funds before it runs out of money next year. Globalstar’s most recent Q3 10-Q admitted that “we will draw all or substantially all of the remaining amounts available under the August 2015 Terrapin Agreement to achieve compliance with certain financial covenants in our Facility Agreement for the measurement period ending December 31, 2016 and to pay our debt service obligations.”
In other words, Globalstar does not have the money to pay its interest and debt payments in June 2017. And with an imminent Terrapin drawdown of over $30M in December, Globalstar really needs an immediate approval to get its share price up to a level where Terrapin won’t be swamping the market with share sales next month. So how will the market react to the prospects of a limited authorization, and will investors be willing to put up $100M+ just to meet Globalstar’s obligations under the COFACE agreement in 2017?
Its important to note that the biannual debt repayments jump further in December 2017 and Globalstar will not be able to extend the period in which it makes cure payments beyond December 2017 unless “the 8% New Notes have been irrevocably redeemed in full (and no obligations or amounts are outstanding in connection therewith) on or prior to 30 June 2017″. Thus its critical that the financing situation is resolved through a major cash injection in the first half of 2017. As a result, it looks like we should find out pretty soon whether this compromise is sufficient for Thermo (or more likely others) to continue funding Globalstar.
Back in November 2014, I published my analysis of what was happening in the AWS-3 spectrum auction to scorn from other analysts, who apparently couldn’t believe that Charlie Ergen would bid through multiple entities to push up the price of paired spectrum. Now we’re seeing relatively little speculation about who is doing what in the incentive auction (other than an apparently mystifying consensus that it will take until at least the end of September to complete Stage 1), so I thought it would be useful to give my views about what is happening.
The most important factor to observe in analyzing the auction is that overall demand relative to the amount of spectrum available (calculated as first round bidding units placed divided by total available supply measured in bidding units) has been considerably lower than in previous large auctions (AWS-1, 700MHz) and far short of the aggressive bidding seen in the AWS-3 auction.
That’s attributable partly to the absence of Social Capital, but much more to the 100MHz of spectrum on offer, compared to the likelihood that of the five remaining potential national bidders (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, DISH and Comcast), none of them are likely to need more than about 30MHz on a national basis.
What’s become clear so far over the course of the auction is that most license areas (Partial Economic Areas) are not attracting much excess demand, apart from the top PEAs (namely New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) in the first few rounds. I said before the auction that DISH’s best strategy would probably be to bid for a large amount of spectrum in a handful of top markets, in order to drive up the price, and that appears to be exactly what happened.
However, it now appears we are very close to reaching the end of Stage 1, after excess eligibility dropped dramatically (by ~44% in terms of bidding units) in Round 24. In fact a bidder dropped 2 blocks in New York and 3 blocks in Los Angeles, without moving this eligibility elsewhere, somewhat similar to what happened on Friday, when one or more bidders dropped 5 blocks in Chicago, 3 blocks in New York and 1 block in Los Angeles during Round 20.
However, a key difference is that a significant fraction of the bidding eligibility that moved out of NY/LA/Chicago during Round 20, ended up being reallocated to other second and third tier markets, whereas in Round 24, total eligibility dropped by more than the reduction in eligibility in New York and Los Angeles. It is natural that a bidder such as T-Mobile (or Comcast) would want licenses elsewhere in the country if the top markets became too expensive, whereas if DISH’s objective is simply to push up the price, then DISH wouldn’t necessarily want to bid elsewhere and end up owning second and third tier markets.
This suggests that DISH has been reducing its exposure in the top three markets, in order to prevent itself from becoming stranded with too much exposure there. My guess is that DISH exited completely from Chicago in Round 20 and is now reducing exposure in New York and Los Angeles after bidding initially for a full complement of licenses there (i.e. 10 blocks in New York and Chicago and 5 blocks in Los Angeles).
If DISH is now down to about 8 blocks in New York and only 2 blocks in Los Angeles, then its maximum current exposure (if all other bidders dropped out) would be $4.52B, keeping DISH’s exposure under what is probably a roughly $5B budget. Of course DISH could potentially drop out of Los Angeles completely and let others fight it out (for the limited allocation of 5 blocks), if its objective is simply to maximize the end price, but this may not be possible in New York, because there are 10 license blocks available, which could give Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast enough to share between them.
Regardless, with the price increasing by 10% in each round, the price per MHzPOP in New York and Los Angeles would exceed that in the AWS-3 auction before the end of this week, implying that a resolution has to be reached very soon. If DISH is the one to exit, then it looks like Ergen will not be reallocating eligibility elsewhere, and DISH’s current eligibility (256,000 bidding units if it is bidding on 8 blocks in New York and 2 in Los Angeles) is likely higher than the excess eligibility total of all the remaining bidders combined (~182,000 bidding units at the end of Round 24 if all the available licenses were sold). This implies that a rapid end to Stage 1 of the auction is now likely, perhaps even this week and almost certainly before the end of next week, with total proceeds in the region of $30B.
Of course we will then need to go back to the next round of the reverse auction, but it looks plausible that convergence may be achieved at roughly $35B-$40B, potentially with as much as 80-90MHz sold (i.e. an average price of ~$1.50/MHzPOP). If DISH is forced out in Stage 1, then prices in key markets would probably not go much higher in future rounds of the forward auction, so the main question will be how quickly the reverse auction payments decline and whether this takes 1, 2 or 3 more rounds.
Also, based on the bidding patterns to date, it seems likely that Comcast may well emerge from the auction with a significant national footprint of roughly 20MHz of spectrum, potentially spending $7B-$10B. In addition, unless the forward auction drops to only 70MHz being sold, all four national bidders could largely achieve their goals, spending fairly similar amounts except in New York and Los Angeles, where one or two of these players are likely to miss out. In those circumstances, it will be interesting to see who would feel the need to pay Ergen’s asking price of at least $1.50/MHzPOP (and quite possibly a lot more) for his AWS-3 and AWS-4 spectrum licenses.
UPDATE (8/30): Bidding levels in New York and Los Angeles dropped dramatically in Round 25 (to 10 and 8 blocks respectively), with total bidding units placed (2.096M) now below the supply of licenses (2.177M) in Stage 1. This very likely means that DISH has given up and Stage 1 will close this week at an even lower price of ~$25B, with convergence of the forward and reverse auction values probably not achieved until the $30B-$35B range. This lower level of bidding activity increases the probability that 4 stages will now be required, with only 70MHz being sold in the forward auction at the end of the day.
Its been interesting to see the various reactions to today’s announcement from the FCC that Stage 1 of the Reverse Auction concluded with a total clearing cost of $86.4B (apparently excluding nearly $2B for the $1.75B relocation fund and other auction costs).
Most opinions, including my own, were that this amount is laughable in view of how much wireless operators have available to spend on buying spectrum. Some have suggested this means that broadcasters are pricing themselves out of the auction by asking for an excessive amount of money. But the reality is that the FCC set the initial prices (of up to $1B per station) and all broadcasters had to decide was whether or not to participate and if so, at what point to drop out.
Importantly, if the FCC had no excess supply of TV stations willing to offer their spectrum in the auction, then it was obligated to freeze the bids at the opening price. It seems very unlikely that if a broadcaster was willing to participate at an opening bid of say $900M (in New York) then it would decide to drop out at $800M or even $500M. And notably the total opening bids if the FCC moved every single station off-air would be only $342B.
So even though the FCC has described broadcaster participation in the auction as “strong”, it seems that this statement may be code for “somewhat disappointing” because it has proved impossible to obtain sufficient participation to lower the opening bids in a number of key markets, if the full 126MHz target set by the FCC is to be cleared.
Of course the FCC would have been criticized if it had set a lower initial clearance target and it subsequently became evident that sufficient participation existed to reach the maximum. However, it now seems plausible that Round 1 of the forward auction could go nowhere, because there is little reason for participants to reveal their bidding strategies if it is essentially impossible for the clearing costs to be covered. That will probably also lead to criticism of the FCC for miscalculating the level of demand for spectrum, and certainly broadcasters will be highlighting that they apparently value spectrum more highly than the wireless carriers.
As a result, we are likely to see multiple rounds of the reverse auction, in which the clearing target is gradually reduced, until a more reasonable level of clearing costs (perhaps $30B or so) is reached. Although we could see quite a sharp reduction in clearing costs in Round 2 once more markets are unfrozen, it may need as many as 3 more rounds, with 84MHz cleared (representing 70MHz of spectrum to be auctioned), assuming the FCC incrementally reduces the target from 100MHz auctioned to 90MHz to 80MHz to 70MHz. At that point DISH could have even more reason to bid up the prices aggressively, because less spectrum will be available to its competitors, especially T-Mobile, so we might actually end up with the final forward auction bids exceeding the clearing costs by $10B+.
But for now, speculation as to which broadcasters declined to participate is likely to intensify. My suspicion is that fewer of the small and non-commercial broadcasters than expected might have decided to participate. After all as one station in Pennsylvania told the WSJ back in January, “it won’t consider going off the air…because it would lose its PBS affiliation and go against the station’s stated mission of serving the public”. That would mean more of the reverse auction proceeds potentially going to commercial ventures, especially those that were bought up by investment firms with the explicit aim of selling their licenses.
Moreover, it may even be reasonable to guess at some of the markets which may have been frozen at the opening bids: for example, it seems likely that this must include some of the biggest cities, such as New York or Chicago, for such a high total clearing cost to have been reached. No doubt investors will be contemplating what that might mean for those companies that own broadcast licenses in these areas, especially if they have indicated their willingness to participate.
As I predicted last week, TLPS missed its chance for approval on April 22, despite Jay Monroe being convinced that it was in the bag when he presented at the Burkenroad conference earlier that day. He presumably had been assured of that by Globalstar’s General Counsel, Barbee Ponder, who thought they had answered all the FCC’s questions in late March and seemingly didn’t bother to follow-up after that point.
Now today we have seen an experimental license filing from Microsoft to test TLPS in Redmond, WA. Microsoft’s application states:
“Microsoft will test terrestrial operations in the 2473-2483.5 MHz unlicensed band and the adjacent 2483.5-2500 MHz band, consistent with Globalstar Inc.s proposal to operate a terrestrial low-power service on these frequencies nationwide (see IB docket no. 13-213). Microsoft seeks to quantify the affect [sic] of such operations on the performance and reliability of unlicensed operations in the 2.4 GHz ISM band.”
The application also includes the incidental admission that Gerst is correct that the Ruckus APs have been modified (by removal of coexistence filters) from the approved versions (the testing will include “the use of an intentional radiator in the 2473-2483.5 MHz unlicensed band that has not received an equipment authorization as ordinarily required under 47 C.F.R. § 15.201″) although it should be noted that Microsoft plans to use different APs from those in Globalstar’s own tests, including a consumer model which was one of Microsoft’s primary concerns.
The duration of the experimental license is requested to be 6 months, from May 23 to November 23, suggesting that we may not see results until the fall. This could perhaps permit FCC consideration of the results after the November election if Microsoft identified no problems whatsoever (or if the FCC sets a hard deadline for further testing, though as noted below Bloomberg is reporting that the initial authorization will last at least a year), but more likely it will set the scene for additional back and forth between Globalstar and its opponents in the period before the next FCC Chairman gets his or her feet under the desk in spring 2017.
UPDATE (5/13): Despite Microsoft’s experimental application, Globalstar’s TLPS proposal has finally made it onto the FCC’s circulation list this afternoon. That raises the question of whether Microsoft’s application was made with Globalstar’s cooperation (as I had assumed) or if Microsoft anticipated the issuance of an order that all sides acknowledged would require more testing and simply jumped the gun in preparing to conduct its own testing after that point (which now seems the most plausible explanation).
So now the focus will shift to what this order contains. It seems to basically be taken for granted that there will be increased sharing of L-band spectrum with Iridium (though that would come in a separate parallel ruling by the International Bureau on delegated authority) and that additional power limits will be imposed as an interim measure, probably at a 200mW level. Bloomberg is also reporting that there will be constraints on the number of APs that may be deployed, with a limit of 825 in the first year, and “the FCC will assess whether they cause interference to other services”. However, prior to the rejected deal last summer the FCC also contemplated changes to the OOBE restrictions that would permit increased use of Channels 12 and 13 by terrestrial users, and it will be interesting to see if these changes are still present, or if they have been modified, perhaps due to concerns about possible impacts on Bluetooth LE users in the upper part of the unlicensed spectrum.
Its interesting to hear that Kerrisdale is apparently raising $100M to short DISH stock, after its previous attacks on Globalstar and Straight Path. As I said back in October 2014 when Kerrisdale mounted its attack on Globalstar, all spectrum (even that owned by Globalstar) does have value, its just a question of what someone will pay for it.
The spectrum bubble has clearly deflated considerably since late 2014 (despite DISH’s successful efforts to push up the price of the paired spectrum sold in the AWS-3 auction) with DISH’s share price roughly halving since that time, and other spectrum plays (like LightSquared/Ligado) also trading at much lower price levels.
This reduction in valuation clearly seems be the result of lower anticipated prices in the upcoming incentive auction, and last week’s FCC announcement that the initial clearing target will be at the maximum level of 126MHz, allowing 100MHz to be auctioned in most of the country (other than close to the Mexican border), will reduce the initial reserve price from $1.25/MHzPOP to $0.875/MHzPOP (although that could rise if broadcasters bid too much in the reverse auction to give up their spectrum).
However, arguments that DISH’s share price will fall much further seem to rely on DISH being forced to sell its spectrum at an even more discounted price due to impending buildout deadlines, competition (not least from Ligado, which secured a Public Notice from the FCC on its revised spectrum plans a couple of weeks ago) and very low prices in the incentive auction. Its useful to look back at what has happened previously, when operators have overpaid for spectrum, notably Verizon’s lower A and B block purchases in the 700MHz auction in 2008. In that case Verizon simply waited until someone (T-Mobile and AT&T respectively for those blocks) was prepared to pay the same as Verizon had paid (plus its cost of capital over the holding period).
If DISH is not under time or competitive pressure, then Ergen could also potentially wait to realize a reasonable price, at least in line with what DISH has already invested in its spectrum holdings (including the $10B spent on AWS-3 spectrum). Verizon might even decide to do a deal to buy spectrum from DISH sooner rather than later if it believes Ergen can wait indefinitely. And all of these problems can be addressed by spending money: bidding up the prices in the incentive auction this year, outbidding Ligado for the 1675-80MHz spectrum next year, and building out a fixed broadband network in the 1695-1710/1995-2020MHz band (as I suggested in November) to meet its FCC buildout deadlines.
Those three items could represent a sizable amount of money: perhaps $3B-$5B in the incentive auction (something that does not appear to be contemplated by most of the analysts covering the auction), $1B-$2B for 1675-80MHz and $2B-$3B for a fixed wireless broadband network, for a total of $6B-$10B over the next couple of years. And at first blush many would view that as another negative for DISH’s equity.
But the key issue here is to understand DISH’s capital structure and how the money flows around. DISH has raised its existing debt in the form of unsecured bonds at the DBS subsidiary, with no recourse to the parent entity which holds DISH spectrum assets. And the DBS bonds are not protected from being structurally subordinated to new bank debt at DBS (indeed part of the plan to fund a bid for T-Mobile last year was to raise $10B-$15B of new bank debt at DBS).
So if Ergen agrees with his kids, that its crazy to be in the pay TV business long term, then it makes absolute sense to raise say $6B+ of bank debt at DBS, flow that up to the parent company to support its spectrum plans, and (depending on how quickly the pay TV business declines and if a spectrum deal can be done in the interim) eventually file Chapter 11 for the DBS subsidiary (but not the DISH parent company). In fact raising that money sooner rather than later would make sense – DISH would have to convince the bankruptcy court that the subsidiary was not insolvent at the time of the transfer, unless that transfer happened several years before the filing. Note also that DISH has no need to spin off a spectrum holdco – the parent is exactly that, once it has extracted all of the equity value from the DBS subsidiary via this bank debt.
What does all this mean? All of the upside from any spectrum deal flows to DISH’s equity, but relatively little of the downside from no deal being struck: that downside is much more likely to be a problem for the DBS bonds. So if Kerrisdale’s plan is to short the equity, then it may face an asymmetric exposure risk. In fact, some people taking the other side of Kerrisdale’s trade might even decide to be long DISH equity and buy credit default swaps on the DBS bonds. That would create the possibility that they could win from a spectrum deal taking place, but also win if DISH can’t do a deal this year and has to raise money to wait out Verizon and/or AT&T.
In conclusion, remember what DISH said in response to rumors of the Kerrisdale report: “We will continue to manage the business for the long-term benefit of our shareholders as we have done over the last 35 years.” After all, Charlie Ergen’s a shareholder, with much of his wealth tied up in DISH stock, but as far as I know he’s not a DBS bondholder.
Its interesting that Globalstar has decided to announce its Q1 results this Thursday afternoon, which may be just before the FCC releases the draft agenda for its May open meeting and would presumably therefore mean Globalstar management is not in a position to discuss TLPS, just as in late February.
UPDATE (5/3): On the other hand, if the FCC issues the agenda on Wednesday or Thursday, its possible that Globalstar will either be able to celebrate or will face questions during the call on why the process has not yet reached a conclusion.
The May open meeting could be the last chance for Globalstar to get a ruling on TLPS from the FCC in 2016, as Chairman Wheeler tries to triage his enormously long to-do list before the change of administration at the end of the year. Otherwise Globalstar might well find itself being measured up for a “political funeral”.
The results of Smitty’s triage efforts became evident on Friday April 22, with the release of the final agenda for the April open meeting (which addressed the 3.5GHz band) accompanied by the public notices on LightSquared/Ligado’s modification applications resulting from its GPS settlement and petition for a 1675-80MHz rulemaking.
It seems clear that Globalstar also expected to be included in the day’s releases, with Jay Monroe announcing that morning at the Burkenroad conference that TLPS “authority expected shortly”. That was a notable contrast to the Q4 results call on February 25, where he said only that “it is in all of our best interest not to provide any additional comments or answer any questions during the Q&A on the subject of the proceeding”.
However, it looks probable that Globalstar was derailed not just by Google’s poison pill, but also by growing worries about potential interference with Bluetooth hearing aids, a topic that was brought up by Gerst Capital in a meeting on March 30, and elevated to a more significant concern by a letter from two members of Congress on April 7. Technical meetings with the Hearing Industries Association on April 19 and 20 then seem to have failed to put these issues to rest.
Its not only Globalstar’s TLPS ambitions that now may be prepared for burial, but also its prospects for MSS business growth. Distributors appear to expect that release of new devices based on the Hughes chipset will be delayed, with the Sat-Fi 2 unlikely to be available in volume until the fall (amid only tepid interest after the struggles of other satellite WiFi devices), the new two-way SPOT expected after that, in winter 2016/17, and the next generation handheld phone delayed to as late as the end of 2017 (even assuming funds are available for product development next year).
Voice pricing has been changed to remove the popular $25 per month service plan, with little or no notice given to current subscribers that their bill will jump by $15 this month. While that may lead to an increase in ARPU, it may also prompt an increase in churn, unless Globalstar caves when customers threaten to terminate their service. Instead, Globalstar will presumably intensify its efforts to give away free phones to new $65 per month customers, including an increase in internet advertising that I’ve noticed recently. However, the handheld market remains pretty slow for all MSS operators.
So now the question is whether Jay Monroe can keep up his optimism about Globalstar’s promising mass market future and multi-billion dollar spectrum opportunity, despite all these problems. More to the point, once the Terrapin equity line is exhausted later this year, will he put his own money on the line to keep Globalstar afloat, or will he once again be able to find others willing to keep buying Globalstar’s equity?
As I noted after the Satellite 2016 conference a couple of weeks ago, the outline of an FCC compromise over Globalstar’s TLPS proposal has become clear in recent weeks. That would involve increased sharing of the Big LEO L-band spectrum (which led Jay Monroe to use nearly as many F-words about Matt Desch as he did about me at the conference) and a restriction of the initial approval to operate at a power level of not more than 200mW (consistent with, but not specifically limited to, indoor operation). Then testing of Globalstar’s (supposedly all-capable, but apparently not yet contracted from ViaSat or even fully defined) Network Operating System would be required to demonstrate that any interference would be prevented, before any potential increase in power levels would be contemplated.
This mechanism was sought by Globalstar because then it would have an authorization for commercial deployment and, on the back of that, could go and raise $150M to keep the company funded (and avoid Jay having to put in any more money) for the next couple of years, while Globalstar looked for a partner that would attribute value to TLPS. Of course that may well be an endless task, if the cable companies do not “have an interest in leasing or buying Globalstar’s spectrum even if that company received approval by the FCC” and Cisco is unwilling to pay billions of dollars to acquire Globalstar.
I was told that an FCC order would very likely come before the end of this month, because the FCC wanted to get a precedent in place (of non-interference with existing unlicensed services, as recommended by Public Knowledge) before it considered what to do about LTE-U.
However, it seems everyone reckoned without Google’s continued interest in the proceeding, which has now forced Public Knowledge to change its tune, and emphasize that the FCC should impose the “public interest condition” of “authoriz[ing] reciprocal public use of Wi-Fi Channel 14 in locations where Globalstar’s TLPS is not deployed…in return for the auction-free windfall that Globalstar seeks.”
Google’s insistence on the “examination of options for general public use of Wi-Fi Channel 14″ seems like just the sort of poison pill that would prevent Globalstar from raising additional funding after the initial approval, because who would give Globalstar money for spectrum that they could use anyway whenever Globalstar had not deployed in a given location?
So if the FCC does include this condition, it seems highly likely that Jay will reject the deal, just as he did last summer when the FCC tried another compromise that would have involved low power approval only within Globalstar’s licensed spectrum, along with increased L-band sharing with Iridium. As a result, the uncertainty about the eventual outcome of the TLPS proceeding may last a little longer yet.
The Satellite 2016 conference this week has reminded me of years past. All the talk has been of ViaSat and their new ViaSat-3 1Tbps high throughput satellite (depicted above), just like in 2004 when Mark Dankberg used his Satellite Executive of the Year speech to describe his ambitions to build a 100Gbps satellite. Unlike back then (when most dismissed Dankberg’s plans as pie-in-the-sky), ViaSat’s announcement has already caused some large investment decisions by major operators to be postponed, and re-evaluated or perhaps even cancelled. Indeed the entire industry seems frozen like a deer in the headlights, trying to decide which way to run.
Some competitors, like Inmarsat, have chosen to portray ViaSat-3 as a “mythical beast” and ViaSat’s current offering of free streaming video on JetBlue as a “marketing stunt”. However, its far more serious than that. One perceptive observer suggested to me that its like competing for the presidency against Donald Trump: how do you respond to a competitor who is clearly intelligent and has a plan to win, but deliberately says things that fundamentally contradict your (supposedly rational) world view.
In the satellite industry the prevailing world view is that (at least in the foreseeable future) there is no need to build 1Tbps satellites offering capacity at $100/Mbps/mo, because satellite broadband will never compete directly with terrestrial and capture tens of millions of subscribers. But if ViaSat is determined to blow up the industry, most current business plans for two-way data applications (including essentially all Ku-band data services) are simply no longer viable. And if competitors remain frozen (or worse still dismissive) in response to ViaSat’s plans, then ViaSat will gain a head start on building these new higher capacity satellites.
In addition to this overarching theme, several other nuggets of information emerged: Inmarsat is acquiring a seventh “GX payload” by taking over Telenor’s Thor-7 Ka-band payload in Europe on a long term lease, presumably at a very attractive rate (perhaps even approaching the Eutelsat-Facebook-Spacecom deal price of ~$1M/Gbps/year, given Telenor’s lack of Ka-band customers). And Globalstar now appears to have a roughly 60%-70% chance of getting FCC approval for TLPS in the next couple of months, given the FCC’s desire to set a precedent of protection for existing unlicensed services that can be used in the upcoming LTE-U rulemaking. However, it appears that any deal would require a compromise of 200mW power limits (the maximum level demonstrated to date) and sharing of Globalstar’s L-band spectrum above 1616MHz with Iridium.
Going back to the title of this post, if last year’s conference felt like 1999, with exuberance about multiple new satellite projects, this year felt like 2000, as attendees peer over the edge of the precipice. Following on from that, next year could be like 2001, with pain to be shared all around the industry: a sharp fall in satellite orders, as operators re-evaluate the feasibility of their planned satellites, a continuing fall in prices, and the possibility of stranded capacity, either at operators, who are unable to sell their growing inventory of HTS capacity, or at distributors, who entered into contracts for capacity leases at prices far above current market rates.
Last June, I pointed out that CTIA had taken the odd (but hardly surprising) decision to run away from its own data on US mobile data traffic growth in 2014, which showed only a 26% increase, in favor of an error-strewn Brattle Group paper that used Cisco’s February 2015 mobile VNI estimates to supposedly show the “FCC’s mobile data growth projection in 2010 was remarkably accurate.”
Now Cisco has released its February 2016 mobile VNI report, CTIA’s attempt to bury its own data has backfired, because Cisco has retrospectively revised its prior estimates of North American mobile data traffic downwards by more than one third. Cisco’s estimate of EOY North American mobile data traffic in 2014 has been reduced from 562TB/mo in the Feb 2015 mobile VNI to only 360TB/mo in the new release, which makes it almost the same as the estimate of 2013 traffic in last year’s publication (345TB/mo). Similarly the estimate of 2015 traffic has been reduced from 849TB/mo in last year’s publication to only 557TB/mo this year, a loss of more than an entire year’s growth.
The chart below highlights the impact of this massive revision to Cisco’s estimates, showing that when combined with previous revisions, the latest estimate of traffic in 2014 is less than half the figure projected by Cisco back in February 2010 (which was used by the FCC as one of the traffic estimates in its infamous October 2010 paper).
Ironically, Cisco’s latest revision actually brings its estimate of US mobile data traffic for 2014 (323TB/mo at the end of the year – from the online tool, the North America figure above includes Canada) below CTIA’s own total of 4.1PB for the year as a whole (i.e. an average of 340TB/mo) meaning that in fact CTIA would have been better off using its own data. Of course that wouldn’t have had the desired effect of trying to make the FCC feel good about its hopelessly flawed 2010 paper and justify CTIA’s own attempt to disinter this methodology and use it to claim a spectrum crisis is still imminent.
UPDATE (2/4): Oddly, in a blog post Cisco asserts that the revision was so that the “2014 baseline volume adjustment now aligns with CTIA’s figures.” That’s actually wrong: the Cisco estimate represents an end-of-year figure (the first line of the report states “Global mobile data traffic reached 3.7 exabytes per month at the end of 2015“) and given that the monthly traffic is growing (one assumes relatively consistently) through the year, it is implausible for the final month of the year to have less traffic than the average for the year as a whole. However, it is certainly very ironic that Cisco has chosen to (try and) align its traffic figures with CTIA at precisely the time when CTIA wants to bury its own numbers in favor of more optimistic growth estimates.
Specifically, Cisco’s latest VNI forecast shows that the FCC’s estimate that traffic would grow by 35 times between 2009 and 2014 (a reduction from Cisco’s own estimate of 48 times growth) was actually 50% too high, because according to the latest Cisco data, North American traffic grew by only 22 times between 2009 and 2014 (unless of course Cisco has also made some undisclosed retrospective revision to its 2009 data).
As usual, Cisco has not provided any detailed explanation of this dramatic change in its numbers, though part of the cause seems to be a further increase in the assumption of offloaded traffic in 2014 and 2015: the latest forecast claims offloaded traffic on a global basis will grow from 51% in 2015 to 55% in 2020, whereas the previous version claimed growth from 45% in 2014 to 54% in 2019. However, this certainly can’t account for the scale of the change and Cisco must have revised many other individual elements of its traffic estimates in order to reduce its estimates by such a large amount.
“I’m half crazy all for the love of you” is a good description of the state of mind of Globalstar investors and perhaps even more appropriately, this is the song HAL sings as he’s shut down in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But now Globalstar apparently has its answer, delivered by “Smitty” and the heads of the International Bureau and the Office of Engineering and Technology in a meeting on January 14.
It seems Globalstar was nervous about the outcome, carefully scheduling its Odeon conference call several days before this meeting (on January 11), so that the company could say that it “has not been asked by the Commission to provide any further technical data or engage in any additional testing.” Even now there would not be any formal demand made by the Commission, merely a discussion of how the proceeding could be brought to a conclusion.
Globalstar’s hopes were raised by the intervention of Public Knowledge in November, who (while not thinking much of Globalstar’s attempt to devise “yet-another-sure-fire-plan-to–make-beaucoup-bucks-using-ATC-and-this-time-TOTALLY-not-go-bankrupt“), saw this as an opportunity to set a precedent for the upcoming rulemaking on LTE-U, requiring new users of unlicensed spectrum (i.e. cellular operators) to guarantee that they will prevent interference and resolve any complaints that do arise.
However, numerous technical issues remain outstanding, because Globalstar has steadfastly maintained that its program of demonstrations (rather than cooperative laboratory testing) provides a sufficient record for the FCC to reach a decision, and as I indicated previously, Globalstar rejected a proposed FCC compromise last summer.
What is notable about the latest ex parte filing is how half-hearted Globalstar’s statements are compared to its submission in December, which at least tries to highlight some of the technical arguments. In the new filing, Globalstar doesn’t even bother to put additional details about its “Network Operating System” for resolving interference on the record, despite Public Knowledge stating last week that “For the Commission to formulate service rules, Globalstar must provide greater detail on how its proposed mitigation mechanism would work” and Globalstar apparently telling investors on the Odeon call that the “Company will succinctly address ‘framework’ and ‘additional testing’ from the new PK Ex Parte in the coming days.”
Its therefore pretty easy to conclude that far from this representing the last step before approval as some of Globalstar’s “half crazy” investors apparently think, the FCC indicated that more information will be required before they are prepared to even consider moving forward, likely in the form of a cooperative testing plan agreed with opponents. Some have suggested that if such a discussion had happened, Globalstar would have been obligated to put it in the ex parte filing, but the FCC’s ex parte rules at §1.1204 (a)(10)(iii) specifically note that “information relating to how a proceeding should or could be settled, as opposed to new information regarding the merits, shall not be deemed to be new information” that must be summarized.
Given these developments, and a share price which has now fallen by more than 50% in the last six weeks, it hardly seems like great timing for Globalstar’s new COO to start work. However, if TLPS is not going to be approved any time soon, Globalstar will have to focus on making something (however modest) of the MSS business, if only to minimize the cure payments due under the COFACE agreement in the next couple of years, and hope that additional funding can be found to meet these obligations.
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