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Why Intelsat’s 5G dreams are crashing to Earth

April 14, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC

Satellite communications company Intelsat is close to bankruptcy after a years-long gambit to profit from selling some of its airwave licenses for 5G wireless networks has fallen short.

The company, responsible for transmitting most programming for cable and broadcast networks across the country with its satellites, is lining up financing known as a debtor-in-possession loan, used to maintain operations during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. The company had earlier hired investment bank PJT Partners and law firm Kirkland & Ellis for a possible filing, Bloomberg noted.

The rapid financial demise comes after the Federal Communications Commission rejected a plan from Intelsat and other satellite communications companies to let them directly sell spectrum known as the C-band to wireless carriers that could use the airwaves for 5G networks. Analysts said such a sale could bring $30 billion to $50 billion in bids from telecom companies desperate for more airwaves to use for superfast 5G service.

But the plan ignited heated and bipartisan opposition in Congress to letting foreign-based satellite companies collect such huge sums. Among current C-band holders, Intelsat and SES are legally based in Luxembourg, Telesat is Canadian, and Eutelsat Communications is based in France.

That led the FCC at the end of February to adopt an order mandating a government-run auction of the C-band airwaves, which will delay and greatly limit payments to Intelsat and its rivals.

So instead of profiting by tens of billions of dollars, Intelsat now will likely get at most $5 billion and might have to spend several billion dollars before the auction to prepare for the sale, though those costs would ultimately be reimbursed. The FCC has scheduled the C-band auction to start in December, though the date could be delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Intelsat, which also provides satellite communications to airplanes and ships, is suffering from the coronavirus economic slowdown, as well.

Shares of Intelsat lost 21% to close at $1.10 on Tuesday. The shares have dropped sharply from over $25 as recently as early November. Burdened by a heavy debt load of $14 billion, Intelsat’s bonds are also trading at close to 50 cents on the dollar.

Intelsat did not respond immediately to a request for comment from Fortune.

After years of working closely with its industry peers to sell the C-band spectrum, Intelsat spent much of the past few weeks fighting other satellite companies unsuccessfully at the FCC to win a reprieve or a greater share of even the reduced proceeds.

The situation has “all gone a bit Hunger Games,” Jeffries analyst Giles Thorne noted in a report a few weeks ago, referring to the famed series of dystopian novels by Suzanne Collins.

“We don’t see the conversation as suggesting any material change in direction by the FCC or the companies,” New Street Research analyst and former FCC official Blair Levin wrote in a report over the weekend. “We see it as a sign that, in the Covid-19 economy, everyone is more worried about when they will be paid, and the ability of counterparties to make good on their payments.”

Intelsat’s problems could also be a loss for some large hedge funds that had bet on the company’s C-band gambit. Famed investor David Tepper disclosed in February that his firm, Appaloosa, and some affiliates had purchased a 7% stake in Intelsat at an average price of over $5 per share. Tepper’s firm also bought Intelsat bonds and could turn a profit in the end, depending on how the satellite company weathers the C-band auction process and a possible bankruptcy filing.

A spokesman for Tepper declined to comment.

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