Plan C for Charlie?

Posted in DISH, Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 3:20 am by timfarrar

Now that DISH’s attempts to bid for MetroPCS and do a deal with Clearwire appear to have been stymied by T-Mobile and Sprint respectively, the obvious question is what is Charlie Ergen’s Plan C? After all, last week DISH raised another $1.5B in a debt offering, “to be used for general corporate purposes, which may include spectrum-related strategic transactions”.

I’ve wondered if DISH has many options left other than to sell to AT&T, but it now appears that Ergen may have other plans, which are likely to be revealed within the next three weeks. After all, DISH asked the FCC to extend the comment period on the Sprint-Softbank deal until January 21, and DISH has 30 days from the publication of the AWS-4 Order on December 17 to decide whether to protest the proposed license modification.

While it is possible that Ergen could use the $1.5B that DISH has raised to mount a counterbid to either Sprint’s takeover of Clearwire, or T-Mobile’s takeover of MetroPCS, others think he is contemplating use of the money for a potential H-block bid, in order to persuade Sprint to enter into a more attractive hosting agreement. However, there is a far more intriguing possibility, which could explain why Sound Point started buying up more LightSquared debt at precisely the time when Clearwire decided to go with Sprint instead of DISH’s offer. That is an attempt to buy up all of LightSquared’s first lien debt, followed by a battle to oust Falcone when LightSquared current exclusivity (to propose a plan for emergence from bankruptcy) expires at the end of January.

Then DISH could propose in mid January that the AWS-4 uplink spectrum is instead converted to downlink spectrum (in line with a suggestion made by the FCC back in March), and LightSquared’s uplink spectrum would be used to provide an alternative uplink.

That would be logical, because it will be years before LightSquared is able to use its L-band downlinks, and the 1675-80MHz band is unlikely to be given away to LightSquared for nothing (as opposed to being auctioned). It would also make the full 20MHz of AWS-4 uplink spectrum usable for downlinks, and make an H-block counterbid by DISH far more plausible, because the H-block downlink (1995-2000MHz) could be combined with the AWS-4 spectrum between 2000-2020MHz, putting Sprint under further pressure. The FCC might also like to see the risk of litigation with LightSquared being taken off the table, as well as the prospect of higher bids for the H-block, even if the end result was a further delay in deployment of the AWS-4 spectrum.

Why would Ergen choose this risky path, with its inherent delays in buildout, rather than a simple sale of spectrum to AT&T at this point in time? Presumably AT&T has not yet made a knockout bid to buy the AWS-4 spectrum, while if DISH gained additional downlink spectrum adjacent to the G and H blocks, it would be far better positioned to strike a deal with Softbank to provide auxiliary downlinks for Sprint’s LTE network if AT&T doesn’t come to the table.

In addition, because Sprint is tied up with Softbank (and Clearwire) and T-Mobile with MetroPCS, there are few good partnership options available that would enable DISH to pursue a network buildout at the moment. The FCC has given Ergen 4 years for the initial AWS-4 deployment and even if that deadline is missed, the full buildout (to 70% of the population) can be undertaken in 6 years.

As a result, DISH has little to lose by taking some time to explore alternatives, seek to build up even more valuable spectrum assets, and hope that an attractive deal emerges for either a sale or network buildout in a year’s time. If DISH does go down this path, then LightSquared’s bankruptcy case, which has largely fallen off the radar screen in recent months, could be about to get very interesting.


  1. TMF Associates MSS blog » LightSquared’s Mexican standoff… said,

    March 21, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    [...] as 10-15MHz in total. This of course makes it far less plausible that DISH would be willing to countenance using LightSquared’s spectrum (for uplinks) in conjunction with its own AWS-4 spec… (for downlinks), as LightSquared’s debtholders hope. After all, harking back to another long [...]

  2. TMF Associates MSS blog » Its the ecosystem, stupid… said,

    July 1, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    [...] until after the next Presidential election, so it would be possible to take this time to reband AWS-4 spectrum to downlink and use LightSquared as uplink. More importantly, LightSquared’s spectrum is part of Ergen’s leverage in a battle with [...]

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