Its name may not ring a bell, but in the deep-in-the-weeds backwaters of the deeply-arcane, acronym-riddled world of telecommunications, Neustar has been a standout. But there's a hitch: For the first time since Neustar started managing the database in 1997, the portability contract, as it's called, is up for grabs.
One unidentified investor in large telecoms is so incensed by Neustar's margins that it hired Latham & Watkins attorney Matthew Brill to lobby for lower prices. In a letter to North American Portability Management, which represents the telecoms, Brill argued that the contract should have margins that "conform to more appropriate expectations for this type of quasi-government contract." In other words, more like 8% or 10%, rather than 60%-plus. In response to the letter, a Neustar spokeswoman said: "This letter from an unnamed source outside of the process does not take into account the complexity of managing the critical infrastructure that the communications industry and consumers rely on. Given the tremendous value Neustar has provided to the industry, and will continue to provide under the extension of the contract, we are confident in our proposal to remain the local number portability administrator." T-minus three-and-a-half months, give or take, and counting. Reality Check Yes, I know, this story is a 10 on the arcane scale. That's unavoidable, given the world in which Neustar operates. That's part of the problem: The story is so eye-glazing obtuse that it gets little attention, which is just when blindsiding can occur the most. In a recent report, The Capitol Forum, which has ties inside the Beltway, wrote that, according to its research, including "several sources close to the FCC process," it believes that Neustar "is likely to lose the high margins" on its portability contract. If so, all bets are off. Of course, nobody can say with certainty how this will shake out. It really boils down a risk/reward game for longs and shorts. But the risk of something unexpected is real, and we've seen this multiple times in patent disputes, court cases and regulatory decisions. They simply don't always go the way consensus expects. Given the way the stock has treaded water since the William Blair upgrade, it would appear investors agree. (Originally published on Real Money)--Written by Herb Greenberg.Follow @herbgreenberg