I’ve been thinking a lot about the failure of Google Fiber and if there are any wider lessons about whether Silicon Valley will ever be able to compete effectively as an owner and builder of telecom networks, or indeed in other large scale capex intensive businesses (such as cars).
One conclusion I’ve come to is that there may be a fundamental incompatibility between the planning horizon (and deployment capabilities) of Silicon Valley companies and what is needed to be a successful operator of national or multinational telecom networks (whether fiber, wireless or satellite). The image above is taken from Facebook’s so-called “Little Red Book” and summarizes pretty well what I’ve experienced living and working in Silicon Valley, namely that the prevailing attitude is “There is no point having a 5-year plan in this industry” and instead you should think just about what you will achieve in the next 6 months and where you want to be in 30 years.
In software that makes a lot of sense – you can iterate fast and solve problems incrementally, and scaling up (at least nowadays) is relatively easy if you can find and keep the customers. In contrast, building a telecom network (or a new car design) is at least two or three year effort, and by the time you are fully rolled out in the market, its four or five years since you started. So when you start, you need to have a pretty good plan for what you’ll be delivering (and how its going to be operated at scale) five years down the road.
For an existing wireless operator or car company that planning and implementation is obviously helped by years of experience in operating networks or manufacturing facilities at scale. But a new entrant has to learn all of that from scratch. And its not like technology is transforming the job of deploying celltowers, trenching fiber or running a vehicle manufacturing line. Software might change the service that the end customer is buying, but its crazy to think that “if tech companies build cars and car companies hire developers, the former will win.”
Of course self-driving cars will drastically change what people do with vehicles in the future. But those vehicles still have to be made on a production line, efficiently and with high quality. Mobile has changed the world dramatically over the last 30 years, but AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, BT, etc. are still around and absorbed some of the most successful wireless startups.
Moreover, Silicon Valley companies simply don’t spend capex on anything like the scale of telcos or car companies. In 2015 Alphabet/Google’s total capex for all of its activities worldwide was $9.9B and Facebook’s capex was only $2.5B (surprisingly, at least to me, Amazon only spent $4.6B, though Apple spent $11.2B and anticipated spending $15B in 2016).
But the US wireless industry alone invested $32B in capex in 2015, which is more than Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple put together, and that excludes the $40B+ spent on spectrum in the AWS-3 auction last year. In the car industry, GM and Ford each spent more than $7B on capex in 2015. So in round numbers, total wireless industry and car industry capex on a global basis are both of order $100B+ every year, a sum that simply can’t be matched by Silicon Valley.
So when Silicon Valley companies aren’t used to either planning for or spending tens of billions of dollars on multi-year infrastructure developments, why are people surprised when it turns out Google can’t support the investment needed to build a competitive national fiber network? (Indeed its not been widely reported, but I’m told that earlier this year Google’s board also turned down a $15B+ partnership with DISH to build a new national wireless network.) Or when it appears “The Apple dream car might not happen” and “Google’s Self-Driving Car Project Is Losing Out to Rivals“?
Instead it appears that we may be shifting towards a model where the leading Silicon Valley companies work on new technology development and “give away the blueprints…so that anyone from local governments to Internet service providers can construct a new way to get Internet signals into hard-to-reach places“. Similar Google could “enable [rather] than do” in the field of self-driving cars. Whether that will lead to these technologies being commercialized remains to be seen, but it does mean that Facebook and Google won’t have to change their existing ways of working or radically increase their capital expenditures.
Undoubtedly some other Silicon Valley companies will end up try to build their own self-driving cars. But after the (continuing) struggles of Tesla to ramp up, it seems more likely that most startups will end up partnering with or selling their technology to existing manufacturers instead. And similarly, in the telecom world, does anyone believe Google (or any other Silicon Valley company) is going to build a new national wireless broadband network that is competitive with AT&T, Verizon and Comcast?
It seems to me that about the best we could hope for is for Google to push forward the commercialization of new shared access/low cost frequency bands like 3.5GHz (e.g. as part of an MVNO deal with an existing operator) so that the wireless industry no longer has to spend as much on spectrum in the future and can deliver more data at lower cost.
However, that’s not necessarily all bad news. It seems almost quaint to look back a year or two at how wireless operators were reportedly “terrified” of Facebook and concerned about how Project Loon could “hand Google an effective monopoly over the Internet in developing countries.”
If Facebook and Google are now simply going to come up with clever technology to reduce network costs (rather than building rival networks) or even just act as a source of incremental demand for mobile data services, then that will be good for mobile operators. Those operators may just be “dumb pipes,” but realistically, despite Verizon’s (flailing) efforts, that’s pretty much all they could hope for anyway.
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.
In late July, EchoStar raised $1.5B in debt, to add to its existing $1.5B in cash and marketable securities. Echostar’s lack of obvious need for these additional funds has led to considerable speculation about what the company’s intentions are, including the possibility of an Avanti acquisition.
As an aside, Avanti is clearly in serious trouble, having leaked the possibility of an Inmarsat acquisition on Friday, in order to try and drum up more interest in its sale process, only to be rebuffed by Inmarsat today, with Inmarsat stating that “it has withdrawn from Avanti’s announced process and it is not considering an offer for the shares of Avanti.”
It seems very likely that there is no potential buyer for the company (otherwise the leak would not have been needed) and therefore Avanti will be forced to file for bankruptcy on or around October 1 when its next bond interest payment is due. Inmarsat would clearly be interested in certain Avanti assets, including Ka-band orbital slots for its I6 and I7 satellites and possibly the Hylas-1 satellite for additional European capacity, but these can be picked up in bankruptcy, likely for no more than $100M. And it is hard to imagine other mooted potential buyers, such as Eutelsat and EchoStar being more generous: Eutelsat has made it clear it does not intend to invest more in Ka-band satellites until they reach terabit-class economics, while Charlie Ergen’s past adversarial relationship with Solus and Mast (in DBSD, TerreStar and LightSquared) makes him very unlikely to bail out Avanti’s investors. At this point, it is therefore probable that there will be no buyer for Hylas-4, forcing Avanti’s bondholders to continue to fund its construction, if they want to avoid a NewSat-like situation, where the nearly completed satellite is simply abandoned and handed over to its manufacturer.
Returning to the question of what EchoStar intends to do with its $3B of cash, it seems that a response to ViaSat’s global ViaSat-3 ambitions is likely to emerge in the very near future. After all, Hughes announced Jupiter-1 in 2008 in response to ViaSat-1, and then pre-empted ViaSat-2 with its own Jupiter-2 announcement in 2013. EchoStar could do this in one of three ways:
1) EchoStar could build its own global satellite system. This seems like the least plausible option, because there will already be at least three global Ka-band systems (from ViaSat, Inmarsat and SES). However, if EchoStar decides it does not believe the fully global opportunity is large enough, it could decide to just build a North America focused Jupiter-3 satellite (which would likely have a capacity of at least 500Gbps, and would have competitive economics to ViaSat-3).
2) EchoStar could partner with another operator. This is very plausible, especially as SES seems poised to announce its own GEO system soon, and would be keen to offload risk to an anchor tenant. Its even possible that EchoStar could build Jupiter-3 for North America, and partner in a separate global coverage effort with somewhat lower capacity.
3) EchoStar could buy another operator. This would be the most radical option, with Inmarsat the obvious candidate. There are many challenges here, not least that EchoStar might not be able to afford to buy Inmarsat, but the fit would be perfect, enabling EchoStar to leapfrog ViaSat to fully global coverage today, while being able to backfill Inmarsat’s limited GX capacity with its own HTS satellites. Moreover, Ergen would clearly attach significant value to Inmarsat’s L-band spectrum assets, not least in the leverage he could obtain over Ligado’s efforts to become a competing source of terrestrial spectrum to DISH in the US.
There remain other possibilities, but these seem less likely to emerge in the near future. EchoStar could build out a terrestrial network to meet the buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS spectrum holdings, and lease it to DISH, but it would be odd to announce that before the incentive auction has finished. EchoStar also changed the disclosure about new business opportunities in its SEC filings earlier this year, noting that:
Our industry is evolving with the increase in worldwide demand for broadband internet access for information, entertainment and commerce. In addition to fiber and wireless systems, other technologies such as geostationary high throughput satellites, low-earth orbit networks, balloons, and High Altitude Platform Systems (“HAPS”) will likely play significant roles in enabling global broadband access, networks and services…We may allocate significant resources for long-term initiatives that may not have a short or medium term or any positive impact on our revenue, results of operations, or cash flow.
However, this new language appears to have related to Ergen’s discussions about a partnership with Google, which I noted previously, and Google appears to have opted for an alternative path for its wireless broadband buildout, with its recent acquisition of Webpass.
As a result, I think EchoStar is likely to push forward with its satellite broadband efforts in the next month or two, presenting a serious challenge for ViaSat. That means its certainly not the case, as Jefferies wrote in its coverage initiation on ViaSat today, that “ViaSat-2/3 will give [ViaSat] the best bandwidth economics in the world (for now) and a de facto monopoly in residential broadband”. Indeed, I’d predict that although ViaSat will undoubtedly grow its satellite broadband business in North America very substantially (by as much as a factor of two) over the next 5 years, its extremely unlikely to pass EchoStar in the total number of subscribers, especially given the lead to market that Jupiter-2 will have over ViaSat-2 during 2017.
Its been interesting to hear the feedback on my new ViaSat profile that I published last weekend, especially with regard to ViaSat’s supposed technical advantages over the HTS competition. As I noted in the report, ViaSat has apparently been struggling with its beamhopping technology, reducing the capacity of its upcoming ViaSat-2 satellite from an originally planned 350Gbps (i.e. 2.5 times the capacity of ViaSat-1) to around 300Gbps at the moment.
However, even that reduced target may require extra spectrum to achieve, with ViaSat asking the FCC in late May for permission to use 600MHz of additional spectrum in the LMDS band. Fundamentally this appears to be due to the reduced efficiency that ViaSat now expects to achieve relative to that set out in its original beamhopping patent. The patent suggested that for a ViaSat-2 design (with only 1.5GHz of spectrum, rather than the 2.1GHz ViaSat now intends to use), the efficiency could be as high as 3bps/Hz on the forward link (i.e. 225Gbps) and 1.8bps/Hz on the return link (i.e. 135Gbps) for a total of 360Gbps of capacity. But at Satellite 2016, ViaSat’s CEO indicated that an efficiency (apparently averaged between the forward and return links) of only 1.5bps/Hz should be expected, no better than existing HTS Ka-band satellites and nearly 40% lower than ViaSat originally estimated.
A notable side-effect of this additional spectrum utilization (even assuming approval is granted by the FCC) is that new terminals will be required, including replacement of both the antenna and the modem for aircraft that want to make use of the extended coverage of ViaSat-2. That’s why American Airlines is waiting until the second half of 2017 for this new terminal to be developed, before it starts to install ViaSat’s connectivity on new aircraft.
While the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers Order yesterday does contemplate continued use of the LMDS band for satellite gateways (though utilization by user terminals appears more difficult), it looks like other Ka-band providers intend to shift more of their future gateway operations up to the Q/V-band, rather than building hundreds of Ka-band gateways as ViaSat will need for its ViaSat-3 satellite. That decision could reduce the costs of competing ground segment deployments substantially, while retaining continuity for user links. Thus, as a result of the lower than expected beamhopping efficiency, it remains to be seen whether ViaSat’s technology will now be meaningfully superior to that of competitors, notably SES and Inmarsat who both appear poised to invest heavily in Ka-band.
SES gave a presentation at the Global Connected Aircraft Summit last month, depicting its plans to build three new Ka-band HTS satellites for global coverage as shown above, and the first of these satellites could be ordered very shortly, because as SES pointed out in its recent Investor Day presentation, it has EUR120M of uncommitted capex this year and nearly EUR1.5B available in the period through 2020.
Meanwhile Inmarsat is hard at work designing a three satellite Inmarsat-7 Ka-band system, with in excess of 100Gbps of capacity per satellite. Although the results of the Brexit referendum may complicate its efforts, Inmarsat is hoping to secure a substantial European Commission investment later this year, which would replace the four proposed Ka-band satellites that Eutelsat had previously contemplated building using Juncker fund money.
So now it appears we face (at least) a three way fight for the global Ka-band market, with deep-pocketed rivals sensing that ViaSat may not have all the technological advantages it had expected and Hughes poised to secure at least a 6 month (and possibly as much as a 9-12 month) lead to market for Jupiter-2 compared to ViaSat-2. Victory for ViaSat is far from certain, and perhaps even doubtful, but beyond 2020 Ka-band therefore appears very likely to be the dominant source of GEO HTS capacity.
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.
Back in March I noted that the Satellite 2016 industry conference “felt like 2000, as attendees peer over the edge of the precipice.” Yesterday, it seems the industry stepped off into the void, as Eutelsat’s profit warning proved to be the catalyst for a wholesale re-evaluation of the outlook for FSS/HTS data services.
Everyone is worrying about capacity pricing, where according to Eutelsat’s CEO “the outlook for data delivery is bad.” Just how bad hasn’t been obvious to many observers, not least Northern Sky Research, who in March dismissed suggestions that the sky is falling and instead claimed that so far there has only been “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ though these drops were “expected to continue to gather steam.” Moody’s struck a similar positive note about European satellite operators in January, suggesting that “A Rebound in Revenue Growth, Stable Margins and Plateauing Capex to Support Credit Quality in 2016.”
In reality, a look at some of the largest deals shows just how much of a price decline has already taken place. Traditional wide beam transponders have been priced at $3000-$4000 per MHz per month, which made Intelsat’s offer to IS-29 anchor tenants in 2012 of about $2000 per MHz per month look like a bargain (Intelsat said it leased 20% of the capacity, i.e. about 2GHz, for $50M p.a.).
However, in February 2016, Gogo struck a deal with SES for “several GHz of both widebeam and spotbeam capacity in total” on its new SES-14 and 15 HTS satellites, followed by another agreement with Intelsat and OneWeb in early March. Gogo’s latest 10-Q has now revealed the impact of those agreements which represent commitments “to purchase transponder and teleport satellite services totaling approximately $29.5 million in 2016 (April 1 through December 31), $41.9 million in 2017, $40.4 million in 2018, $45.3 million in 2019, $58.6 million in 2020 and $309.2 million thereafter.”
Although the split between Intelsat and SES is not given, its a fairly good bet that they will be paid roughly equal amounts in 2020 and beyond. This is consistent with Intelsat renewing and extending its existing contract with more capacity being delivered at about the same revenue level (Intelsat claimed last September it had an 73% share of the aeronautical satellite communications market and Gogo had $37M of lease obligations in 2016 before these deals were struck) and also consistent with the Intelsat deal running through Dec 31, 2023 (as stated in the 8-K) and the SES deal running for “ten years from the applicable commencement of service date” for the SES-14/15 satellites (implying 7-8 years of the respective terms remaining in Jan 2021).
So if SES is leasing at least 2GHz of bandwidth to Gogo, which is the minimum amount consistent with the use of the word “several”, then the price of this capacity is no more than ~$1200 per MHz per month, and very plausibly the price may be as low as $1000 per MHz per month if Gogo is leasing say 2.5GHz. Given that the deal also represents a combination of wide beam and spot beam capacity, it certainly seems that SES’s HTS spot beam capacity is now being leased in (very!) large quantities for as little as $1000 per MHz per month, about 50% less than Intelsat’s original IS-29 deals.
That makes it pretty clear why Eutelsat has decided to step away from the HTS Ku table and limit its HTS investment “to providing broadband access to consumers and small businesses”, presumably via its European and African Ka-band satellites (and its partnership with ViaSat). Back in March I also suggested we could be in for a re-run of 2001 with “a sharp fall in satellite orders” and Eutelsat has confirmed there will now be a “downward review of our capital expenditures”.
So what comes next? Intelsat has just ordered a 9-series replacement satellite (a necessary step given that a large part of its C-band capacity reaches end of life in the next few years). But how much more Ku-band capacity is needed in the near term, given the looming threat of further price pressures from new Ka-band satellites like ViaSat-3? After all, despite large contracts with Gogo and Panasonic, there’s still a way to go just to fill up the HTS satellites that Intelsat and SES already have on order. And can Intelsat afford to match or beat SES’s price levels and still generate an adequate return on capital from the Epic satellites?
Most importantly, how much repricing is still to take place for existing Ku-band data services, and what will C-band users do if their C-band capacity becomes significantly more expensive than Ku (let alone Ka)? In addition, though Inmarsat believes (correctly) that its a very different company from Eutelsat, it has far more exposure to the data services business, and Inmarsat will now have to reconsider its pricing (and capacity provisioning) for GX services, as this low cost Ku HTS capacity impacts the aeronautical and maritime markets.
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.
So now the Kerrisdale report has been released, along with a prebuttal from Citigroup, claiming that Kerrisdale is “Absolutely Not a Thesis Changer”. However, as I noted last week, the biggest issue in thinking about the future for DISH is likely its capital structure, which neither of the reports address at all.
I also wish that both of them were better at math, when they try to assess whether today’s wireless networks are operating at capacity (though perhaps its hardly surprising when these calculations have been a recurring problem for New Street Research, CTIA, the FCC, Ofcom and even the ITU). Citi criticize Kerrisdale for considering New Albany, Ohio as a representative location, given its lower than average population density amongst US metropolitan areas (suggesting that 1000 people per sq km is more representative than 258 people per sq km), and also allege that Kerrisdale “ignores the variance in usage during the day” (suggesting that 40% of traffic needs to be accommodated in each of the 2 hour long morning and evening rush hours).
By making these adjustments, Citi claims that average utilization with a 25MHz downlink spectrum allocation would be 280% in the morning and evening peaks, compared to the 15% daily average estimated by Kerrisdale. Of course Citi exaggerate on the upside and Kerrisdale exaggerate on the downside.
The correct calculation for a “typical” situation should take the average number of subscribers per cellsite (144M subs on 48.6K cellsites for Verizon, according to Citi’s own report, or 2965 subs/site, compared to 1773 in Kerrisdale’s report and 7092 subs/site in Citi’s report) and the average busy hour ratio for mobile traffic (6.9% according to Cisco’s Feb 2016 VNI report which says the busy hour has 66% more traffic than average, although carriers typically build to around an 8% busy hour, perhaps 9%-10% in very peaky locations) and should also derate by the share of traffic carried on the downlink (around 87% in the US according to Sandvine), which neither report takes into consideration.
That would result in a daily downlink traffic of around 258GB per site (vs 177GB for Kerrisdale and 709GB for Citi) and a busy hour traffic of 17.8GB rather than the 142GB estimated by Citi. Then, using their own assumptions about capacity per site, each site would see a busy hour utilization of 35%, not 15% and certainly not 280%, suggesting that there is some headroom on most cellsites, just as you would expect, but that carriers will need to continue to upgrade their networks in years to come, to cope with future traffic growth, especially in peak locations.
That brings us back to my original thesis: Verizon might find DISH’s spectrum useful, but its network is not in danger of imminent collapse without it. Instead Verizon might prioritize increased use of small cells, sectorization and beamforming, and treat buying spectrum as the last thing to do, as Bob Azzi (former Sprint CTO) suggested on today’s Tegus call that I participated in.
This is a poker game, and if Ergen can prolong his license term (by building out fixed wireless broadband, as all of the call participants agreed would be logical) then he may be able to wait for Verizon to come to the table. If DISH can push up the price of spectrum in the incentive auction and prevent LightSquared/Ligado from offering a midband alternative then Ergen will be in a stronger position. So it seems more logical to me to talk about where that money will come from over the next couple of years, and not whether DISH will be forced to sell at a discounted price or Verizon will be forced to pay whatever DISH demands.
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?
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