McCaw Seeks to Calm ICO Investors

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PARIS — Cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, who in the past 15 years has been responsible for more investment in the commercial satellite industry – most of it lost – than anyone else, has emerged from a long public silence to urge investors to keep the faith with his latest venture, ICO Global Communications.

But he also suggested that ICO has a Plan B in the event that its current business model – providing mobile interactive media to video screens in cars and to hand-held devices – does not win market acceptance.

In an unannounced speech during a Feb. 19 conference call on ICO’s progress, McCaw sought to calm investor jitters about ICO’s declining stock price, its impending need for fresh cash in a difficult credit environment and the fact that the value of ICO’s radio spectrum seems lost on the well-financed strategic investors that were supposed to swoop in and rescue the venture.

In the satellite business, he said, “decisions are required to be made very far in advance, which is negative to unlocking value. So with that in mind, we are launching a very flexible spacecraft … which gives us flexibility to integrate with any other services or satellites.”

But while McCaw, as ICO’s chairman, was speaking of ICO’s specific virtues and challenges, he could have been making the case for almost the entire mobile satellite sector. SkyTerra’s Mobile Satellite Ventures, TerreStar Networks, Globalstar Inc. and Iridium Satellites are all in more or less the same situation.

It was McCaw who spearheaded an effort in 2001 to persuade the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that no commercial mobile satellite service could survive in the United States unless it was allowed to use its satellite frequency to create a ground-based wireless network, free of charge.

The FCC agreed, setting the stage for several billion dollars of debt and equity financing of the mobile satellite sector fueled by cheap debt and a confidence that wealthy telephone companies or Internet service providers would step in to help finance the billion-dollar investment in the ground networks, known as Ancillary Terrestrial Components, or ATCs.

It has not yet happened, despite several FCC auctions of other spectrum that, according to the mobile satellite companies, has established a valid market reference value for their own spectrum.

“People always wonder why [strategic investors] are not jumping on these things,” McCaw said of the mobile satellite/ATC opportunity. “The strategics, and governments, are extremely risk-averse and want the comfort provided by assurance. … Vision is not their long suit.”

In the absence of an outside strategic investor, McCaw asked ICO backers to consider the company’s large spacecraft, now scheduled for launch April 14, as having a value of its own, and not just as a necessary expense to seize terrestrial spectrum.

“The satellite is not a tax on our spectrum,” McCaw said. “People sometimes look at the business as a spectrum opportunity with a satellite attached, and I am not sure that is appropriate. The best way to unlock value is to do things that create value out of the hybrid opportunity of having a satellite which has terrestrial capability and spectrum use, [and] the ability to build facilities on Earth.”

ICO Chief Executive J. Timothy Bryan said during the conference call that he remains confident that outside investors will be attracted once the company’s FCC license is secured with the launch and in-orbit service of the ICO G1 satellite.

ICO purchased a $344 million insurance policy covering the launch of the satellite, and a separate $278 million policy covering the first year’s operations, paying a premium of $44 million, or 12.8 percent.

The satellite, built by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., is scheduled to arrive the week of Feb. 25 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., to undergo preparations for a launch aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket.

ICO Global, in which McCaw is a major shareholder, has budgeted between $450 million and $500 million to build, launch and insure the satellite, build out a limited ground segment and prepare for trials of its mobile interactive media service this summer.

Bryan said the company had enough cash to get through the first trials, but will need additional money starting late this year to pursue commercial rollout, scheduled for early 2009. McCaw acknowledged the difficult financial environment. “Obviously we are in a time of market dislocation and people will worry about things like opportunities that looked good yesterday don’t look so good today,” McCaw said. “Risk does not look good, and people want to move away from risk. And that is another reason why we have asked our team to de-risk the business as much as possible.”

McCaw’s earlier efforts in the satellite business include the Teledesic global broadband network, which collapsed after more than $1 billion in investment by companies hoping for satellite-construction contracts.

He later led an earlier ICO architecture featuring 12 large medium Earth orbit satellites. That effort also failed for lack of financing even though the satellites were mostly built. ICO now is suing satellite-builder Boeing for $2 billion in damages.

After many delays, the trial, in the Superior Court of California for the County of Los Angeles, is scheduled to begin in April.