Harbinger Capital wants to build a new national wholesale fourth-generation wireless network called “LightSquared,” repurposing spectrum originally allocated for satellite service. Though many obstacles remain to be vanquished, the firm has approval to reuse the spectrum in a new way, has gotten about $1.75 billion in outside financing and has hired Nokia Siemens Networks to operate the network, as part of an eight-year, $7 billion deal.
It still has to raise significant amounts of new capital and find customers as well. But assuming it can get financing and then one or two anchor tenants, LightSquared could provide the foundation for a destabilizing attack on the structure of the U.S. mobile markets on one hand, and on fixed broadband on the other hand.
On the other hand, there are serious obstacles. The proposed terrestrial network would have about 23 MHz of spectrum to use. That’s a significant, but not overwhelming amount of spectrum, generally enough to support one retail mobile LTE network.
Funding for full construction is not yet assured, and some observers might think the investment risky, given the new 4G networks Clearwire already operates with as much as 120 MHz of available spectrum, as well as new networks coming from Verizon Wireless and later, AT&T, plus a fast HSPA-Plus network activated by T-Mobile USA.
In most markets Clearwire does not appear to have activated more than about 30 MHz of available capacity, so there is much room for additional growth. That noted, if LightSquared does raise the required capital, and does get an anchor tenant the size of T-Mobile USA, it would necessarily raise the potential of some disruption to the market.
Just how much is hard to say. T-Mobile USA on the LightSquared network would not represent new competition, but rather competition from an existing competitor in the 4G arena. In that sense, the LightSquared network, while troublesome for AT&T and Verizon Wireless (especially given the FCC’s prohibition on leasing of more than 25 percent of total capacity to those two firms), would not be too disruptive.
An assessment of this sort is important for Harbinger Capital’s ability to raise the rest of the network investment, of course. The point is that an investor might well question the wisdom of making a big investment in a capacity play just at the point that significant bandwidth already is online, and coming online, from the top-four established players in the market.
But if investors perceived that LightSquared would be disruptive, the chances of raising funding would increase.
Harbinger’s best shot at success might come if it could convince investors that T-Mobile USA to will become an anchor tenant, as it is the only one of the four-largest mobile companies without a path to owning its own 4G spectrum. On the other hand, it isn’t clear how soon T-Mobile might have to light such facilities.
The company does not appear to have an immediate physical need, though the marketing platform of “4G” is likely to grow.
But T-Mobile USA might strike a deal with Clearwire, as an alternative. That illustrates the risk. LightSquared might need T-Mobile USA to have a shot at a successful business plan, but investors must be convinced that is likely before they will invest in the network.
It is too early to say whether LightSquared will be disruptive, because it is a bit early to know whether it can get off the ground.