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Lack of foreign participation in wireless auction seen as positive for Big 3

Canadian telecom companies large and small have put down deposits to take part in the federal government’s wireless spectrum auction next January, but the lack of foreign telecom players on the list takes some heat off the Big Three carriers.

Industry Canada said Monday that a total of 15 participants — including Bell Mobility, Rogers Communications and Telus  — placed a refundable five per cent deposit for the Jan. 14 auction by the deadline.

Regional players such as Quebecor’s Videotron in Quebec, MTS Inc. in Manitoba and Bragg Communications, which operates EastLink in Atlantic Canada, are also on the list.

Two private equity firms are on the list, a subsidiary of Birch Hill Equity Partners and Catalyst Capital, both based in Toronto, as is the parent company of Wind Mobile, Globalive Communications.

Canaccord Genuity analyst Dvai Ghose said that no U.S. carriers placed a deposit to leave the auction option open, as expected since Verizon said earlier this month that it would not enter Canada’s wireless market.

“In summary, we view the list as a key positive for the incumbents and a key disappointment for the government, which wants four carriers in every market,” Ghose said in a research note Monday.

Bell, Rogers and Telus had waged a vigorous publicity battle against the federal government’s relaxed requirements for new entrants, amid reports that Verizon could become a rival in their home turf.

Industry Minister James Moore said the auction will provide Canadians with high-speed wireless services with the latest technologies and will continue to bring more competition to consumers.

“Well before this summer’s public debate on wireless policy, our government introduced a number of measures to create more choice in Canada’s wireless market and to defend consumers,” Moore said in a statement.

“This trend will continue as a result of January’s auction. In addition to this auction, our government will continue to aggressively pursue policies that ensure consumer interests are at the core of all government decisions.”

The federal government wants to have four wireless competitors in each region of the country to ensure more choice for consumers.

Ghose said the government “bent over backwards to find foreign carriers to act as new entrants.”

The federal government removed foreign investment restrictions last year for small carriers with a market share of less than 10 per cent, paving the way for foreign carriers to come in as new players.

Bell, Telus and Rogers had strongly objected to the possibility of Verizon entering Canada’s market as a new player and being able to bid on two prime blocks of 700 megahertz spectrum while they could only bid on one apiece.

The 700 megahertz auction of radio waves has been called the equivalent of “beachfront property” by analysts.

These radio waves have the ability to allow cellphone signals to reach into elevators, deep into underground parking lots, traffic tunnels and basements where calls are often dropped and will also help meet consumers’ growing use of smartphones and tablets.

The signal can also travel greater distances and, in rural Canada, will require fewer cellphone towers to provide coverage.

The previous auction in 2008 raised $4.3 billion and brought more competition to the cellphone market with the launch of Wind Mobile, Mobilcity, Public Mobile, Videotron and Eastlink.

However, the Canadian wireless market continues to be largely shared by Bell, Rogers and Telus.

Shares in Rogers were up 63 cents to $45.47, shares in BCE were up 48 cents to $44.41 and shares in Telus were up 30 cents to $34.88 in morning trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Rogers Communications is the parent company of City, CityNews and CityNews.ca.