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LightSquared, one of three companies planning hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband networks covering North America, received welcome news in late January when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) waived a requirement that all handsets distributed for use with its service have satellite connectivity.
The large antennas that satellite phones need dampen their market appeal. For this reason the satellite connectivity requirement was considered a barrier to raising the billions of dollars LightSquared needs to deploy the ground-based portion of its nationwide L-band network.
Less than a week after the waiver was granted, however, Charlie Ergen’s Dish Network company announced it had offered $1 billion to purchase bankrupt DBSD, which is planning a similar hybrid mobile broadband network but in S-band. At the same time, another Ergen property, EchoStar Communications, appeared to be maneuvering to take control of a different bankrupt S-band mobile broadband hopeful, TerreStar.
Ergen’s moves raised the prospect of TerreStar and DBSD emerging from bankruptcy and being combined, resulting in one company with two satellites on orbit and access to 40 megahertz of S-band spectrum. Such a company would be a formidable competitor for many of the same investors LightSquared is courting, especially with LightSquared carrying the extra burden of having to prove that its L-band system will not pose a risk of interference to the U.S. Air Force’s GPS satellite navigation system.
But on Feb. 24, Ergen gave LightSquared back the thunder he had stolen, telling investors during a conference call that EchoStar no longer was interested in taking over TerreStar after having encountered shareholder resistance. This disclosure came after EchoStar announced a $2 billion agreement to buy satellite ground equipment and broadband service provider Hughes Communications.
Although Ergen, through EchoStar and Dish Network, still has stakes in both TerreStar and DBSD, his plans in the mobile broadband arena are now harder to discern. In his conference call, he shed little light on the status of Dish Network’s $1 billion offer for DBSD, which also has encountered shareholder resistance.
That puts the spotlight back on LightSquared, which has yet to attract financing outside of its angel investor, Harbinger Capital Partners. LightSquared is under the gun — it has pledged to the FCC that it will have a terrestrial network that reaches 100 million Americans by 2012. For that to happen, the company is going to need a lot of money, and it is going to need it soon.