04.17.12

The heat is on…

Posted in Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 4:53 pm by timfarrar

Separate articles published yesterday by The Daily Beast and Bloomberg had plenty to say about Phil Falcone’s “deep perspiration stains” and his claim that “he doesn’t sweat” under pressure. However, with the waiver of the covenant breaches on LightSquared’s first lien debt expiring on April 30, the heat is certainly on him to figure out the way forward.

Bloomberg’s article indicates that Falcone is hoping Carl Icahn “might become a partner”, as he searches for a way to keep LightSquared out of bankruptcy. In that context it is interesting to note that news emerged last week that Icahn is nearing a deal to buy a 14.9% stake in Ferrous Resources, a Brazilian iron ore mining company, from Harbinger at a price of $1.50 per share, one third of what Harbinger paid for shares in the company in 2009 and less than half of the valuation put on these shares by Harbinger in January 2012. At least conceivably, such a deal could provide a quid pro quo for Icahn’s support in keeping LightSquared out of bankruptcy, and it is notable that Harbinger also needs to raise $47.5M from this asset sale to repay its own loan (from Jefferies) by April 30, the same day that the LightSquared covenant waiver expires.

Two weeks ago I thought that the April 20 deadline (this coming Friday), when Inmarsat can terminate its Cooperation Agreement with LightSquared, could provide the impetus for a decision on whether or not to file for bankruptcy sometime this week. However, if the future of Harbinger itself is riding on avoiding a potential default on the Jefferies loan, then the Inmarsat deadline might well now be ignored. Inmarsat has been standing firm on its insistence that it must be paid even more money to contemplate any extension of the Cooperation Agreement, so if the April 20 deadline passes without payment being made, then it is hard to see an outcome where Inmarsat doesn’t just terminate the Agreement for default, and reclaim several additional MHz of spectrum from LightSquared as part of these default conditions. In those circumstances, it would become even harder for LightSquared’s successors to ever deploy a terrestrial network in the L-band MSS spectrum, even if the FCC was to mandate GPS receiver standards at some point in the future.

As a result, we may soon be asking what is actually left for LightSquared’s creditors, in the absence of any agreement with Inmarsat or Sprint, other than a ground spare satellite (which at least originally was worth $120M to Boeing, based on their vendor financing agreement) and an in-orbit satellite (which is probably worth very little, given its negative cashflows). Of course, LightSquared will try and sue the government, but that may now be made much harder by the statements of DirecTV’s CEO, who told Bloomberg that they “looked at LightSquared’s spectrum in 2004″ and concluded “It conflicts with GPS, it will never work”. DirecTV’s CEO may be misremembering the events, because Rupert Murdoch (then owner of DirecTV) was telling the Wall St Journal in November 2005 that “We may be forming a company with partners to build something out here that would give you broadband” and I had understood that these discussions were in 2005 (possibly even into early 2006) and broke down mainly over price.

Nevertheless, even Falcone admitted that in 2010 he “knew there were interference issues [but] they weren’t his to solve because GPS users were encroaching on his spectrum”. If that is the case then wouldn’t it have been rather better to tell the GPS community about the problem years ago, rather than try to spring it on them as a fait accompli at the last minute? It seems that as DirecTV’s CEO put it “Falcone ‘made a bet that the government would say, “Sure, go ahead,” or somehow make it right.’”.

Of course the complaints of Harbinger’s own investors will be significantly boosted by Falcone’s admission, and LightSquared’s investors may well suggest that UBS ought to have enquired more deeply into this issue before selling the first lien debt. However, for the moment, both Falcone and LightSquared’s debt investors appear to be more focused on securing a spectrum swap, which as Walt Piecyk says in the Bloomberg article (and as I’ve said many times before) “isn’t a realistic option [because] there’s nothing readily available and…if there was, that’s spectrum that could be auctioned off for billions in proceeds”.

Indeed the news today that the FCC has appointed Gary Epstein, a former SkyTerra executive, as co-head of the Incentive Auction Task Force (something which has already attracted Sen. Grassley’s attention) may make it even harder for the FCC to take any action to help LightSquared, because further accusations of favoritism would be sure to follow.

All of this comes as attention finally seems to be turning to the fact that (as I’ve said for the last 18 months) the “spectrum crisis” is based on hyperbole from the wireless carriers (not to mention the FCC and White House). As Marty Cooper, the inventor of the cellphone and Cooper’s Law (which states that spectral efficiency, or put another way potential wireless capacity in a given area, has doubled every 2.5 years for the past century) puts it:

“Every two and a half years, every spectrum crisis has gotten solved, and that’s going to keep happening,” Mr. Cooper said. “We already know today what the solutions are for the next 50 years.”

In fact, the CTIA’s semi-annual statistics, released last week, gave a pretty clear indication of what those solutions are. Remarkably, in the last six months of 2011, an all-time record 26,465 cell sites were added in the US (an increase of more than 10% in just 6 months) despite the fact that wireless capital investment by the carriers during 2011 was up only 1.7% on 2010. Thus it seems pretty clear that deployment of new (small, lower cost?) cell sites for capacity enhancement is working very well to accommodate increasing amounts of data traffic, without imposing any significant burden on the wireless operators. Indeed, with the operators apparently able to include on-net WiFi traffic in the data they report to CTIA, as AT&T is probably doing, the need for more licensed spectrum may be reduced even further. As a result, if LightSquared’s investors ever believed Mr. Falcone’s assertion that “it is clear that the investment thesis was dead-on” then maybe they ought to start having some doubts about that as well.

1 Comment »

  1. TMF Associates MSS blog » Can’t buy me love? said,

    April 28, 2012 at 9:18 am

    [...] up the heat” on Phil Falcone (which surprisingly failed to mention whether he is sweating or not) it was intriguing to note that the article was changed during the day by the removal of one [...]

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