Spoiling for a fight…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Spectrum, Sprint at 3:49 pm by timfarrar

Please Masa, don’t throw me into the litigation briar patch!

This week saw an apparent reversal for DISH on Monday, when SoftBank agreed to increase its bid for Sprint slightly and Sprint rejected DISH’s bid as unlikely to lead to a “superior offer”, followed by a victory on Wednesday when Clearwire’s special committee recommended that shareholders accept DISH’s $4.40 per share tender over Sprint’s $3.40 per share bid to buy out minorities.

Despite this apparently split decision, many seem to believe that the outcome will have to be all-or-nothing, with either DISH or Softbank winning both Sprint and Clearwire. In other words, either Sprint increases its bid for Clearwire to fend off DISH, or DISH brings in an equity partner to further improve its bid for Sprint. However, Sprint has put some serious roadblocks in DISH’s way, increasing the break-up fee due to SoftBank if its bid is rejected and more importantly, requiring any counterbid by DISH to be “fully financed pursuant to binding commitments from recognized financial institutions“. Sprint has also stated that it will “enforce its governance rights in Clearwire” and previously described DISH’s offer for Clearwire as “illegal”.

In my view, rather than pointing towards a new DISH bid for Sprint with committed financing (costing hundreds of millions of dollars) which would potentially still be rejected by the Sprint board, that suggests to me that DISH might instead make a much higher (non-financed) bid for Sprint and then initiate legal action over Sprint’s refusal to consider it. Similarly, DISH has been trying to delay FCC approval for the SoftBank bid, because Softbank has been emphasizing the urgency of moving forward quickly to improve Sprint’s network and the deal becomes less attractive to SoftBank the longer it is delayed. Going forward DISH would presumably also bid against Sprint for the H-block spectrum, closing off yet another avenue for Sprint to improve its network.

A similar strategy may be at work in the Clearwire bidding, and even if Sprint was to mount an increased bid (which seems less likely now that SoftBank has increased the offer to Sprint shareholders and reduced the cash available to Sprint for investment), I’m convinced that Ergen would simply increase DISH’s tender offer once again. As a result, DISH is very likely to gain a substantial stake in Clearwire, and then Ergen will be able to block Sprint from taking full advantage of Clearwire’s spectrum, and probably tie the company up in another legal battle over Sprint’s “governance rights”.

Remember that as Craig Moffett noted “Dish is unique in that it uses litigation as a profit center” and Charlie Ergen said last year “I may be the only CEO who likes to go to depositions…You can live in a bubble, and you’re probably not going to get a disease. But you can play in the mud and the dirt, and you’re probably not going to get a disease either, because you get immune to it. You pick your poison, and I think we choose to go play in the mud.”

So now the question for Masayoshi Son is, does he want to tie up Sprint and Clearwire in litigation for years, or will he instead reach an accommodation with Ergen, and sell DISH the 40MHz of Clearwire spectrum that Ergen wants, in exchange for getting full control of Sprint and the remainder of Clearwire? Such a deal might enable Ergen to become a wireless competitor (as it would likely be followed by DISH purchasing T-Mobile), but the alternative may be that SoftBank’s $21.6B investment in Sprint wastes away, as Sprint fails to improve its network and does not become any more competitive with AT&T and Verizon.

While all eyes are on the Softbank/Sprint/Clearwire battle, there have also been some interesting developments in the long running LightSquared saga. In mid May Sound Point Special Opportunities (SPSO) fund hired Rachel Strickland of Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher, who previously represented DISH and EchoStar in the TerreStar bankruptcy case, just before news emerged that DISH had made a $2B takeover offer for LightSquared. Reports on the June 6 case hearing suggested that SPSO is controlled by Ergen (presumably in a personal capacity rather than by DISH or EchoStar, which are disqualified investors) but gave few additional details. However, today SPSO has joined the Ad Hoc Secured Group, represented by White & Case. This filing reveals that SPSO holds only $504.7M of the LP Term Loan and none of the LP Preferred Shares (which may well be the fulcrum security in the bankruptcy case, given LightSquared’s intention to raise a $2B loan from Jefferies to pay off the secured debt and continue operations and that Ergen’s $2B bid for LightSquared was carefully pitched to pay off the LP Secured Debt but not the Preferred Shares).

So the question is who holds the LightSquared LP Preferred Shares, which I was told were sold to Ergen/Sound Point by Fortress and Providence in April when they sold their Term Loan debt. Notably, Solus (who have been on the opposite side from Ergen in previous MSS bankruptcies) has also sold its LP Preferred holdings in recent months. So its pretty clear that there is likely a single large undeclared holder controlling virtually all of the fulcrum security in this bankruptcy. Is it DISH (perhaps holding the preferred shares directly rather than through Sound Point) or someone else? And what happened to the indications I’d received that Sound Point owns more than half of the Term Loan? Is there another undisclosed Sound Point fund (perhaps backed by Carlos Slim?) in addition to SPSO that controls an additional $300M to $400M of the term loan? Its going to be very interesting to see how this works itself out and who now owns what, as we look forward to another epic legal battle over LightSquared’s proposed reorganization plan.


I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 9:30 pm by timfarrar

Some observers may be wondering if Charlie Ergen is serious when he suggests using LightSquared spectrum as an alternative to Clearwire, as suggested by today’s news that DISH made a $2B cash bid last week to buy LightSquared (note that the offer is for LightSquared LP not Inc, i.e. ignoring the 1670-75MHz Crown Castle lease). After all, some might think this is yet another in a series of increasingly implausible maneuvers, as DISH tries desperately to find a way to exploit its spectrum assets.

However, its important to note that this story comes immediately before Clearwire shareholders were set to vote on Sprint’s bid for the company. That’s curiously similar to the leak of news that DISH was interested in buying T-Mobile (also to Bloomberg), just a few days before DISH made its bid for Sprint last month, so I wonder what Charlie Ergen has in mind this time around.

In the case of LightSquared, the company still has exclusivity to propose a plan until the end of this month, while DISH has indicated that its offer only remains valid until May 31, so DISH has plenty of outs if it wants. In addition, its hardly likely that Harbinger would accept an offer that would wipe out their equity, even if value is left for preferred holders (where Sound Point owns an 80% stake and would thus control the fulcrum security in any reorganization) after paying off the $1.7B plus interest due on the term loan.

LightSquared’s spectrum is certainly not a near term alternative to Clearwire, given that it will take years for use to be approved, and an L-band ecosystem won’t develop until well after that for DISH’s AWS-4 spectrum. On the other hand, the L-band has near term value to DISH because of the Mexican situation, and could be a long term backup option, if DISH plans to sit on its AWS-4 holdings for the next several years and wants to reband it to downlink spectrum, so its worth forcing Harbinger’s hand and ensuring that LightSquared’s assets are ultimately auctioned off.

However, just as the T-Mobile story was a red herring to distract from DISH’s planned bid for Sprint (even though it remains a possible alternative option for DISH), I wonder if the LightSquared story indicates that DISH has another plan to announce in the next few days. Could it be a deal to buy spectrum from Clearwire, if Sprint’s bid is unsuccessful? Certainly the suggestion that LightSquared is a viable option might help DISH in negotiations with Clearwire over price.

Another possibility is that DISH is trying to persuade Clearwire shareholders to sell out to Sprint for a relatively lower price, on the basis that DISH could then go all out to buy Sprint, without worrying about Crest trying to hold out for more money for Clearwire investors. Finally, and perhaps the biggest stretch: could DISH be poised to reach an understanding with SoftBank that it will gain control of some of Clearwire’s spectrum if SoftBank succeeds in buying Sprint and Clearwire without a significant increase in the current bids?

News tonight that Clearwire may decide to delay the vote on Sprint’s bid certainly suggests that Sprint might now succeed in securing the votes to buy Clearwire with only a modest increase in its bid price (to say $3.30 to $3.50 per share). In that case, DISH would have to either negotiate with or outbid SoftBank if it is to secure access to the Clearwire spectrum it wants, unless DISH succeeds in persuading the FCC that Sprint should be forced to dispose of some of Clearwire’s spectrum as a condition of closing the deal.

At least from SoftBank’s point of view, DISH would certainly be a more palatable purchaser of Clearwire’s spectrum than Verizon. If that presents too much of a problem (from the point of view of Sprint shareholders who would then be unable to realize the benefit of a rival DISH bid), could Sprint sell some 2.5GHz spectrum to T-Mobile instead, presenting DISH with another indirect route to acquire this spectrum?


Very UnClearWire…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Spectrum, Sprint at 8:09 pm by timfarrar

Late last week, it was gratifying to see Charlie Ergen essentially confirm my thesis about his bid for Sprint: the bid was a response to the refusal of Clearwire to consider selling spectrum to DISH (and instead drawing down the financing from Sprint).

Softbank has been downplaying the prospects of an increase in its bid for Clearwire, and my guess is that it will be prepared to let Sprint’s current bid be rejected in the May 21 vote, because its hard to see Clearwire’s shareholders approving a deal with Sprint with only a modest bump in the price (say to match DISH’s $3.30 offer). Then the question is whether Sprint (and SoftBank) would allow Clearwire to sell DISH the 40MHz of 2.5GHz spectrum that DISH has been seeking (with the likelihood that Ergen might then withdraw his bid for Sprint)?

Tonight an analyst report from Macquarie is speculating that DISH will instead team up with American Movil and bid for LightSquared, as an alternative to Clearwire (whose spectrum could then be sold to Verizon). While a partnership between Ergen and Slim is plausible (and indeed is something I’ve been writing about for the last year), using LightSquared’s spectrum as an alternative to Clearwire makes little sense (even if Verizon was able to buy all of Clearwire’s spectrum, which of course it can’t because the BRS spectrum is counted in the spectrum screen). Strangely, Macquarie thinks DISH could get 20MHz of uplink and 10MHz of downlink spectrum from LightSquared, but the 1675-80MHz spectrum won’t be allocated until 2017, and even if it were available, only 10MHz of downlink spectrum would be insufficient for DISH’s plans.

Our report on DISH sorts through the options for DISH, and discusses the reality of what can be done with LightSquared’s spectrum. We also consider the relative advantages of DISH and SoftBank’s plans for Clearwire’s spectrum. In particular, we consider one question that appears to have escaped all of the analysts looking at this situation: what is the value of DISH’s 14M potential cellsites?


DISH’s wireless ambitions

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Spectrum, Sprint at 11:04 am by timfarrar

If you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to for the last couple of weeks (like Phil), I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been hard at work on a new report, released today, on DISH’s bid for Sprint, which discusses DISH’s plans, alternatives and the most likely outcomes from the battle with SoftBank. You can also read some of my thoughts in a GigaOm article (though its not very accurately titled – that wasn’t my choice) or listen to my interview on CNBC last week.

If you are interested in getting a copy of the report, and discussing my conclusions, then an order form and report summary can be found here or please email me for more details. If you’d like to meet in person, then do get in touch: I’ll be in New York next week from May 7-9, on a panel session discussing “Wifi – Friend or Foe of the Mobile Network?” at the Jefferies TMT conference (May 8th) and then at CTIA in Las Vegas from May 21-22, speaking at a Tower and Small Cell Summit panel on “Spectrum Acquisitions and Their Impact on Cell Towers” (May 21st).

UPDATE: A few early comments on the report:
“It was excellent; a really deep analysis. I cannot fault your conclusions and I actually learnt a lot from reading it.” Wireless company CEO
“Read your report this morning. It’s very good…I think your ideas are dead on” National tech reporter


This year, next year, sometime, never…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 9:51 am by timfarrar

The question on everyone’s mind after DISH’s results call on Wednesday is of course “when will Charlie Ergen find a partner” to fulfill his wireless ambitions. Ergen was pretty clear that if DISH’s offer to buy spectrum from Clearwire succeeds then Sprint would be backed so far into a corner that it would be forced to partner with DISH (on Ergen’s terms). Conversely, if Sprint won its takeover bid for Clearwire then there is no way that DISH would accept Sprint’s terms for a partnership. The difference between DISH and Sprint’s positions appears to be that Sprint wants a LightSquared-like deal: a large cash payment for the network buildout, and Sprint having the option (but not the obligation) to buy capacity, whereas DISH wants Sprint to take its payment for a network sharing agreement solely in capacity, not in cash.

As an aside, its interesting to note that the relationship between Ergen and Hesse is obviously pretty poor: Sprint’s proxy for the Softbank deal notes that it was Keith Cowan who dealt with Ergen (Company Z) last summer, not Hesse. As a result, if Sprint did lose Clearwire’s spectrum to DISH, I wouldn’t be at all suprised to see the blame placed on Hesse, resulting in him leaving Sprint, and Masayoshi Son and Charlie Ergen could then work out a partnership between themselves.

If DISH’s bid for Clearwire fails, then DISH will at least have made an impressive profit on the deal: according to DISH’s 10-K, its holdings of Clearwire debt are now worth $951M, compared to an adjusted cost as of September 2012 of $745M. That is a profit of over $200M excluding the interest payment made in December 2012, which would have been at least another $50M (assuming the June interest payment is already included in the adjusted cost basis).

However, and more importantly, what is Ergen’s backup plan, if he simply takes his profits in Clearwire? If DISH wants to achieve a partnership this year, then the only realistic offer is to mount a counterbid for MetroPCS. Recall that DISH offered $11 per share for MetroPCS last summer (in parallel with DISH’s bid to buy spectrum from Clearwire) which was rejected as undervaluing the company. Given MetroPCS is now trading at only $10 per share, what does DISH have to lose by making a similar offer? At the very least that would force T-Mobile to the bargaining table, and DISH might be persuaded to withdraw its offer if T-Mobile offered an attractive network sharing deal. Indeed, if Clearwire’s special committee makes a decision next week to draw on the Sprint funding, I would expect DISH to potentially move on MetroPCS immediately thereafter.

If DISH doesn’t succeed with that gambit, then the timeline for a deal moves back at least until the end of this year or sometime next. LightSquared’s exclusivity in its bankruptcy case has been extended to July 15, but alternative offers can be made after that time, with a view to a resolution of the case before the end of this year. As I’ve noted before, if DISH takes a slightly longer time horizon, then a bid for LightSquared, and conversion of the 2GHz spectrum to downlink use would be an obvious value-enhancing maneuver. In addition, it would put DISH in a much better position to challenge Sprint in the auction for the H-block spectrum, which Sprint has admitted it needs to buy.

Finally, DISH’s ultimate fallback option may be to try and sell the spectrum to another company. However, AT&T appears well set for the next several years, having apparently decided not to pursue DISH when Ergen’s waiver request was denied by the FCC last spring. Verizon has also ruled itself out as a buyer and T-Mobile will be tied up integrating MetroPCS for some time (and after that acquisition will own more spectrum per subscriber than either AT&T or Verizon).

As a result, the timeline for that sale (at least if Ergen is to get an attractive price) may be pretty long, probably beyond the resolution of the broadcast incentive auction (scheduled for 2014) and perhaps even extending until after the 2016 Presidential election, if AT&T and Verizon are to be regarded as serious bidders, given the desire of the FCC to let Sprint and T-Mobile catch-up with their bigger rivals. That is even more likely to be the case if the recent slowdown in the growth of wireless data traffic prompts a reassessment of operators’ future spectrum needs and finally buries the supposed “spectrum crunch”.


Who wants what?

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 4:49 pm by timfarrar

In the wake of Dish’s counterbid for Clearwire, most attention has been focused on trying to discern Charlie Ergen’s objective: does he actually want to buy Clearwire or not? Many seem to think his intention is actually to secure a network sharing partnership with Sprint. However, this doesn’t seem very likely, in view of Ergen’s comments last year about how he looks at “business relationships”, and Sprint’s attempts to talk up a deal with Dish (rather than vice versa).

If Dish’s offer is going to prompt a near term deal with someone else, then it still seems the most likely options would be AT&T or DirecTV: the spectrum cap would create more problems for AT&T if Dish owned additional BRS spectrum (and as discussed below, it is likely that much if not all of the spectrum that Dish has offered to buy from Clearwire would be subject to the spectrum cap), while DirecTV probably would find Dish a less attractive merger partner if major wireless buildout commitments were already in place. As a result, I think if Dish appeared to be making progress with a Clearwire deal, then that might prompt AT&T to act more quickly than it would otherwise do. With Ergen reiterating his lack of desire to sell spectrum, it also seems like the message to AT&T is that a knockout bid for the whole of Dish is the only acceptable option.

As I noted on Tuesday, Dish’s potential offer for Clearwire does seem like a good deal for Dish, especially if the bid is mostly or all for owned BRS spectrum. Dish has offered to buy 11.4B MHzPOPs, which equates to about 38-39MHz on a near national basis, with the option to buy or lease another 2MHz from an adjacent channel to bring the total holding up to 40MHz (presumably to support two 20MHz or four 10MHz TDD channels). It seems likely that Dish would want contiguous spectrum for maximum flexibility, and if Dish was able to buy spectrum from “an adjacent channel” then that channel boundary must be in the BRS band. Thus the most plausible channels may be either the 6MHz BRS-2 channel plus the 6 adjacent 5.5MHz E1-E3 and F1-F3 channels (39MHz in aggregate running from 2618MHz to 2647MHz, all of which is in the BRS block and subject to the spectrum screen) or channels F3, H1-H3 and G1-G3 (38.5MHz in aggregate running from 2651.5MHz to 2690MHz, 22MHz of which is in the BRS block and subject to the spectrum screen).

Most observers would consider this part of the BRS spectrum to be the most valuable part of Clearwire’s holdings, and if particularly if the 2618-2647MHz block of spectrum was sold to Dish, then Clearwire’s remaining spectrum holdings could be substantially less useful to Sprint (or anyone else) in the future. Moreover, if Dish could then take posession of the shared network infrastructure in the event of a Clearwire bankruptcy, there might be very few pieces left for Sprint to pick up.

Why then would Dish be offering to buy up to 100% of Clearwire’s equity as well? Remember that an offer to buy the equity wasn’t part of Dish’s offer back in November, and now appears to have been included simply to trigger the “fiduciary out” to the “no shop” in the Sprint merger agreement. Ergen wouldn’t expect Sprint to sell its shares to Dish, and many of those equity holders like Crest who are betting that the Clearwire equity ought to be worth $5+ per share might not take a $3.30 offer either. Thus it is far from certain that Dish would in the end purchase a large slice of Clearwire equity whose value might be impaired by the spectrum sale.

What is most intriguing is that Clearwire’s executives (as opposed to the board) are apparently very keen on a Dish deal, describing it as “doable but complicated”. That’s perhaps unsurprising because in many cases their interests are significantly different to those of the Clearwire board (and shareholders): with Ergen they would keep their jobs and be responsible for a new independent LTE network build, whereas under Sprint ownership they would likely all be fired.

I understand that Clearwire executives may have been working on a deal with Dish since last summer (I mentioned it in a blog post in September), and note that MetroPCS’s proxy in November indicated that someone (likely Dish) had suggested splitting Clearwire between themselves and MetroPCS back in June 2012, while Dish started acquiring significant quantities of Clearwire debt in the second quarter of 2012. In addition, I’m told that Clearwire renegotiated a significant quantity of spectrum leases (covering more than 1.4B MHzPOPs) between September and November 2012, suggesting that they were preparing for the disposal of significant amounts of their spectrum, either bringing more leased spectrum into use, or selling those leases to Dish.

Given Sprint’s arguments that Dish’s current proposal will go through because they will vote against it, Clearwire management presumably have been working to structure a transaction that could be undertaken without board or shareholder approval, perhaps in the form of the spectrum sale desired by Dish (which could well fall below the 20% of assets requiring approval) plus either a modest tender offer for some of Clearwire’s shares, without any board representation, or no equity purchase by Dish at all.

This leaves open the possibility that if Clearwire’s minority shareholders reject Sprint’s bid, then a spectrum sale and network sharing agreement with Dish would be the only offer left on the table. Of course, that might also prove to be a pyrrhic victory for Crest, if the end result is a Clearwire with significantly diminished spectrum assets (possibly with little easily saleable spectrum) and a network that Dish could simply take over in the event of a bankruptcy.


Payback time…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 5:11 pm by timfarrar

So DISH has now made a (preliminary) public offer to acquire up to 100% of Clearwire’s shares at a price of $3.30, as part of a complicated transaction to acquire 25% of Clearwire’s spectrum (11.4B MHzPOPs for $2.2B, i.e. $0.20 per MHzPOP) and enter into a network sharing agreement for a buildout of both this 2.5GHz and DISH’s existing AWS-4 spectrum.

As indicated in Clearwire’s press release, last fall, before the Sprint Agreement, DISH had expressed interest in acquiring these spectrum assets and entering into the network sharing agreement, largely confirming my analysis, but with Clearwire responsible for the network buildout, not DISH (though I assume DISH would ensure that the buildout agreement allowed it to take over the network if Clearwire went under). It still seems like a reasonable guess that 2.5GHz could have been used to provide a solution for fixed broadband access, especially given DISH’s recent assertions that “it won’t just be about wireless”.

Its notable that the price offered for this spectrum (which is likely the best slice of Clearwire’s spectrum, presumably almost entirely the owned BRS spectrum, not the leased EBS spectrum) is only $0.20 per MHzPOP, far below the valuation of up to $30B ($0.70/MHzPOP) put on the spectrum by Clearwire’s minority shareholders, and only in line with the book value of around $0.19/MHzPOP used for owned spectrum in Clearwire’s 2011 10-K. Given that the book value for Clearwire’s leased spectrum is less than a third of the level of the owned spectrum (on a per MHzPOP basis), and the NPV of the spectrum lease payments is of order $0.05/MHzPOP, Ergen’s proposed acquisition might leave Clearwire with much diminished value for its remaining spectrum holdings.

Of course much of the money that DISH offers for this spectrum would simply return to DISH via repurchase of Clearwire’s first lien debt (which DISH has spent $750M on acquiring). DISH’s new offer at least provides a potential exit for Clearwire’s shareholders, but that’s a modest incremental cost to get Clearwire’s most valuable spectrum and what is most likely a cheap AWS-4 network buildout.

While Ergen’s offer therefore seems like a deal that would be good for DISH, its hard to see that DISH could realistically expect to succeed, given Sprint’s majority ownership of Clearwire’s equity and expressed intention to block this deal. However, what Ergen will certainly achieve is to give Crest and Mount Kellett far more ammunition in their fight against the Sprint takeover, potentially tying up the proposed Sprint buyout for months. Its hard to tell what the Delaware courts will say, though it seems rather implausible that the FCC would block Sprint’s takeover of Clearwire.

If Clearwire turns down the Sprint bridge funding, but is unable to accept DISH’s offer, then Clearwire’s financial position will grow weaker, increasing Sprint’s leverage as time goes on. I’d therefore expect Sprint to refuse to budge on its offer, in the absence of a reversal in the Delaware courts, and though Softbank might want all this to simply go away, the gap between what the Clearwire minority shareholders are demanding ($5 per share) and what Softbank is prepared to pay might just be too big to paper over.

As a result, it seems this battle will continue to provide entertainment (at least to outside observers) for months to come and show Sprint that if you mess with Ergen (via Sprint’s intervention in the AWS-4 proceeding at the FCC) then you should expect to get a taste of your own medicine.


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.


Playing three dimensional chess…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Spectrum, Sprint at 5:04 pm by timfarrar

My sources appear convinced that DISH made an informal offer to Clearwire management sometime ago, and that Sprint has been playing catch-up in its recent actions, after assuming for several years that it faced little pressure to buy Clearwire, because no-one else wanted that spectrum. It seems that Sprint reached out to Softbank in the summer, after realizing that it was facing a challenge from DISH, seeking funds to boost its position in the market (and to help acquire spectrum). At that point Sprint also moved to vigorously oppose DISH’s AWS-4 proposal, trying to delay DISH, while it sought an agreement with Softbank.

However, opinions appear to differ about whether Sprint actually wants to buy Clearwire, or is simply trying to spoil DISH’s plans. My guess is that Sprint’s preferred outcome would be for DISH to sell its AWS-4 spectrum to AT&T, allowing Sprint to pick up PCS spectrum that AT&T would have to sell, and Sprint would only later pick up some of Clearwire’s spectrum at an even lower price than is currently being offered. If DISH does achieve a deal with Clearwire then Sprint’s plans would be spoiled on two fronts: it wouldn’t be able to pick up more PCS spectrum (except the H block) in the near term, and Clearwire might not run out of money and fall into Sprint’s arms in the next few years as Sprint apparently hopes. As a result, Clearwire is now playing a central role in an intricate game of three dimensional chess between Ergen and Hesse.

Although we know what Sprint’s current offer to Clearwire consists of (namely up to $2.97 in cash for the remaining equity, assumption of Clearwire’s debt, plus a bridge loan of $800M to accelerate Clearwire’s LTE buildout), it is harder to determine what an offer from Ergen might entail. Nevertheless, considering the objectives of both DISH and Clearwire (in the absence of a compelling take-out bid for the spectrum of either company) may help to narrow down what Ergen’s alternative offer could be.

From Clearwire’s point of view, the near term objectives are to extend the cash runway, find a way to cut down on the costs of the WiMAX network (decommissioning at least half of the existing sites that will never be built out for LTE) and build out the LTE hotspot network at the lowest possible cost. The hope is that by doing all of these things, Clearwire will be able to hold onto (the vast majority of) its spectrum assets, which will become more valuable over the next 3-5 years as an international 2.6GHz band LTE ecosystem emerges.

From DISH’s point of view, the near term objectives are to deploy an AWS-4 network at minimum cost to meet the FCC’s buildout criteria, get into the wireless business sooner rather than later, come up with a residential broadband solution for its satellite TV customers, and perhaps above all persuade AT&T that DISH is serious about moving forward with a buildout (so AT&T will have to purchase DISH or at least pay up for the AWS-4 and 700MHz E block spectrum).

Clearwire and DISH therefore have a clear alignment of interests with regard to Clearwire’s existing WiMAX network: a sale of these assets to DISH would reduce Clearwire’s expenses, raise a significant amount of cash (that wouldn’t have to be used to pay down the first lien debt), provide a network sharing agreement for the LTE buildout, get DISH into the wireless business more quickly and at lower cost, and provide a fixed broadband solution for satellite TV customers (via Clearwire’s original fixed wireless service, perhaps integrated with a satellite TV antenna to extend the range compared to an indoor modem).

My guess is that DISH would likely pay around $1.5B for Clearwire’s WiMAX network (which cost roughly $4B to build), which might therefore fall below the 20% of asset value cutoff point at which a sale would require approval by Clearwire’s board. DISH would likely also acquire Clearwire’s retail WiMAX customer base and presumably also provide service to the wholesale WiMAX customer base (adding another point of leverage over Sprint) – perhaps DISH would pay up to an additional $500M for these customers.

What is more uncertain is what would happen about the spectrum required for DISH to run the network. Clearwire has a strong interest in establishing a high valuation benchmark for its spectrum, likely $0.30 per MHzPOP or above, and DISH would also want to ensure that perceived spectrum prices are high, if it still hopes for a knockout bid from AT&T. DISH likely needs 20-30MHz of spectrum, covering perhaps 200M people, implying that DISH might have to spend at least $1.8B to $2.7B if it was to buy this amount of spectrum from Clearwire. On the other hand, DISH might opt for primarily leased spectrum, reducing the price somewhat, or simply agree say a 5 year lease with Clearwire, perhaps with a fairly significant prepayment.

Overall, I could envisage DISH paying Clearwire anything from $2.5B in the near term (based on a spectrum lease), up to perhaps $4B+ (assuming a reasonably significant spectrum purchase). Part of this payment would presumably be made by contributing the substantial amount of Clearwire debt already owned by DISH (which cost $750M), and going forward Clearwire would then presumably have a network sharing deal with DISH, so that Clearwire could rollout its LTE hotspots in urban areas and DISH could roll out wide area coverage in the AWS-4 band.

I assume the remaining Clearwire debt would be refinanced, allowing the equity holders to pursue their bet that Clearwire’s spectrum will increase in value. Of course that may not be an expectation that Intel, Comcast and Bright House necessarily share, so Sprint obviously hopes it can persuade these strategic investors to block a deal with DISH. If not, then the question remains, will the DISH deal go through, or will it be derailed by a knockout bid from another party: either Sprint paying the $5+ that shareholders are demanding for Clearwire or AT&T buying DISH for $80 per share?

[UPDATE 12/17] So Sprint has convinced the Clearwire board to accept its offer of $2.97, and it looks like Hesse may have come out on top in this round of the chess game. The determining factor appears to have been the lack of confidence from Clearwire’s management and board that there would ever be a second major wholesale customer for its TD-LTE rollout, as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile weren’t interested in buying capacity from Clearwire. In the presentation discussing the deal, Clearwire confirmed that there had been another “credible, but preliminary, proposal” in the “past several weeks” presumably from DISH, but all potential options for spectrum sales had “values well below those recently speculated”. Clearwire also noted that the “existing governance arrangements” left the company “unable to secure new partnerships”. Of course, the deal locks up Clearwire pretty well, because the $80M per month of financing that is being advanced by Sprint is convertible to equity at only $1.50 per share, and Sprint is not obligated to go through with the purchase of Intel, Comcast and Bright House’s stakes if the acquisition is rejected in the independent shareholder vote (but might then come back with a lower bid).

So now Ergen appears to have struck out twice in his attempts to enter the wireless market, being rejected by both MetroPCS and Clearwire. Will he follow the FCC’s signal and sell his spectrum to AT&T? If so, the price may not be as attractive as many hope: if there are few other options then my earlier estimate of $0.30 to $0.40 per MHzPOP sounds closer to the mark than the inflated $1 per MHzPOP speculation we saw last week. Those expecting a higher bid for Clearwire were banking on a spectrum crisis forcing other operators to make use of Clearwire’s capacity in the next few years, which Clearwire management clearly didn’t believe would happen. Now the question appears to be whether Ergen still believe his spectrum will become more valuable over time, or if instead he will just take the money as Clearwire did.

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