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Canadian Wireless Carriers Freak Out Over Rumored Verizon Entry; Panic Buttons Pressed

upsetcableguyThe three companies that control 90 percent of Canada’s cell phone marketplace have set what they argue is ‘cut-throat’ competition aside to team up in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign to discourage Verizon Wireless from entering the country.

Bell, Rogers, and Telus have maintained what critics charge is a “three-headed oligopoly” in the wireless business for years, leading to findings from the OECD that Canada is among the ten most expensive countries in the world for wireless service in almost every category and has among the highest roaming rates in the world.

Americans also pay high cell phone prices, and customers of both countries will find somewhat comparable pricing when comparing prices north or south of Lake Ontario. A shopper in Niagara Falls, N.Y. can find the Samsung Galaxy S4 from a Verizon reseller for $120 with a two-year contract. A shared data service plan runs as little as $80 a month for 500MB of data and unlimited domestic calling and global texting. Travel across the Rainbow Bridge to Niagara Falls, Ontario, walk into a Rogers store and the same phone runs $199 with a two-year contract (most Canadian carriers used to offer three-year special reportcontracts until the government banned them earlier this year) and a service plan running $80 a month offering the same 500MB of data and unlimited domestic calling and texting. Rogers charges extra if customers want to text a customer outside of Canada, however.

Verizon is no discount carrier. Verizon management has repeatedly stressed it offers premium service and coverage and can charge commensurately higher prices for access to that network. So the idea that Verizon’s interest in entering Canada is to launch a vicious price war is suspect, according to many telecommunications analysts.

Keep Verizon out of Canada at all costs!

They are coming.

They are coming.

In June, the Globe and Mail reported Verizon had shown serious interest in acquiring Canadian cellular upstart Wind Mobile with an early bid of $700 million. Wind Mobile, one of the three significant new “no-contract” entrants vying for a piece of the country’s cell phone market, has limped along since opening for business in 2009, unable to attract much interest from customers concerned about coverage gaps and the poor choice of mobile devices.

More recently, Wind Mobile’s new owner — the Russian mobile giant Vimpelcom — has expressed an interest in selling off the carrier because it cannot gain traction against the biggest three, which also control 85 percent of mobile wireless spectrum.

News that Verizon had taken an interest in the carrier leveled shock waves across the Canadian financial markets. Shares in the three largest telecom giants fell sharply on the news. Earlier this month, Bell CEO George Cope reported that Bell, Telus and Rogers have taken a $15-billion cumulative hit on the capital markets since Verizon hinted interest in Wind Mobile.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC Verizon takes aim at telecom Big 3 with possible Wind Mobile bid 8-19-13.flv

The CBC reported earlier this summer that Verizon Wireless was interested in acquiring the 600,000 customers of independent wireless provider Wind Mobile, which has an insignificant share of the Canadian wireless market. (2 minutes)

Spending a few million, or even a billion dollars, to keep Verizon south of the Canadian-U.S. border is well worth it to the three big players who have launched an expensive campaign to block the proposed transaction and are willing to pay premium prices to keep struggling carriers from being sold to deep-pocketed American telecom companies.

bribesTelus had already done its part, attempting to scoop up another scrappy upstart carrier that wanted out of the wireless business. But the Canadian government rejected Telus’ proposed acquisition of Mobilicity, claiming it would harm efforts to expand Canadian wireless competition. Not to be deterred, Rogers is now attempting a cleverly structured deal to acquire Wind Mobile out from under Verizon with a proposed buyout worth more than $1 billion.

To avoid the anticipated rejection of the deal by Canadian regulators on competition grounds, Rogers has reportedly joined forces with Toronto-based private equity firm Birch Hill Partners that would make that firm the owners-in-name. Although Rogers wouldn’t get a direct equity stake in Wind, it would finance a good part of the deal and win access and control of Wind’s mobile spectrum for its own network. More importantly, it could keep Verizon out of Canada.

“The government is handing out loopholes to Verizon to beg them into Canada”

Cell phone companies in Canada are particularly angry that the government has set aside certain spectrum and guaranteed access for upstart providers to successfully establish themselves without having to outbid the cash-rich big three for wireless frequencies or have to build a nationwide network from scratch. Bell, Rogers and Telus have consistently opposed spectrum set-asides for small carriers, deeming them “unfair.” They argue Canadians’ voracious needs for more wireless service are unending, and it would be unfair not to sell the spectrum to benefit their larger customer bases. But hearing that Verizon, a company larger than Bell, Rogers, and Telus combined, could get preferential treatment and spectrum to enter the country has them boiling mad.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC Telecom debate 8-19-13.flv

Bell’s CEO George Cope appeared on “The Lang and O’Leary Exchange” to debate the fairness of Verizon’s possible entry into Canada’s wireless market. Cope argues Verizon is getting special favors. (9 minutes)

Cope

Cope

The idea of luring a company to move or begin offering service in a barely competitive marketplace is hardly new. Cities have offered preferential policies to airlines to fly in and out of particular cities, local governments have offered tax abatements to get companies to set up shop, and providing exemptions for zoning and infrastructure have been familiar to telecommunications companies for decades.

In 1880, the National Bell Telephone Company had incorporated, through an Act of Parliament, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada (today also known as BCE), which was given the right to build telephone lines over and along all public property and rights-of-way without compensation to the public or former owners. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, Bell would later become the dominant monopoly provider of telephone service across much of eastern Canada.

When the phone companies were handed wireless spectrum to launch their wireless businesses in the 1980s, they didn’t have anything to complain about either.

None of that history impressed Bell’s current CEO George Cope, who took to the airwaves to complain Verizon was being given preferential treatment:

  • Verizon could bid on two blocks of Canadian spectrum set aside for new entrants to the market in auction later this year. Because the big three Canadian firms are not permitted to bid on these blocks, they are likely to be sold at a lower price.
  • Verizon would not have to build its own networks to remote or rural communities, but would be able to piggyback on existing networks.
  • Verizon can bid to acquire small Canadian companies such as Mobilicity or Wind, but Bell, Telus and Rogers are forbidden from bidding on them.

“A company of this size certainly doesn’t need handouts from Canadians or special regulatory advantages over Canadian companies,” Bell said in a full-page newspaper ad. “But that is exactly what they get in the new federal wireless regulations. We’re ready to compete head to head, but it has to be a level playing field,” Cope said in a TV interview, echoing Rogers CEO who also called for a “level playing field.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC Is Verizon really the bogeyman Canada's telecom giants claim 8-19-13.flv

Bell, Telus, and Rogers have launched a lobbying campaign designed to make life difficult for Verizon Wireless if it chooses to enter Canada. The CBC reports Verizon will be able to bid on more spectrum than Canadian carriers and will have the right to roam on Canada’s incumbent wireless networks. (2 minutes)

Industry Minister Moore

Industry Minister Moore

Telus went further, claiming Verizon’s entry into Canada would result in a “bloodbath” for Canadian workers, laid off by the three largest Canadian providers to cut costs to better compete with Verizon.

But Cope said at least one Canadian carrier won’t be able to compete at all, because preferential treatment for wireless spectrum will result in at least one of the big three to lose at a forthcoming spectrum auction, guaranteeing degraded wireless broadband speeds and worse service.

The three companies have found little sympathy in Ottawa, particularly from Industry Minister James Moore, now on a road tour across Canada to promote the government’s wireless competition policies. He called the big three’s loud campaign self-serving and announced a new website sponsored by the Conservative Party of Canada to prove it.

“I think that the public instinctively knows that when they have more choices that prices go down and more competition they’re well served by that,” he told CBC News in Vancouver on Monday. “The noise that we’re hearing is about you know companies trying to protect their company’s interest. Our job as a government is larger than that, our job is to serve the public interest and make sure that the public is served in this so that’s one of the reasons why I’m pushing back a little bit.”

Industry Minister James Moore appeared on CBC Radio this morning to contest the wireless industry’s claims that Verizon is getting special treatment and will bring unfair competition to the Canadian wireless market. (7 minutes)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Oppose Verizon Wireless. Do it for Canada!

But the wireless companies show no signs of backing down and have turned towards appealing to Canadian nationalism and fairness.

fair for canada“The U.S. government is not giving Canadian wireless carriers any special access to the U.S. market,” says a website launched by the big three cell providers to drum up support for a “level playing field.” “Then why is it that our own government is giving American companies preferential treatment over our own companies?”

This week, a Reuters report citing unnamed sources suggests Bell, Telus, and Rogers are about to target Verizon directly with a new campaign warning Canadians the American giant has been implicated in allowing the U.S. government open access to network and customer data, which would represent a profound privacy threat to Canadian customers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bell Rogers Telus Ad 8-13.flv

Bell, Telus, and Rogers paid to produce this ad calling on Canadians to protest unfair competition from an American wireless company.  (1 minute)

So far, Canadians’ hatred of their telecommunications providers has trumped the companies’ public relations and scare tactics. The Conservative government in Ottawa is winning support for its wireless competition war, even from unlikely places.

tweet“Someone mark the date,” Tweeted one Halifax woman not inclined to vote Conservative. “Stephen Harper has done something I mostly support.”

“Eat it Telus/Bell/Rogers,” wrote a Calgary man fed up with the lack of competition in Canadian wireless.

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, says opposition from the big three telecom companies is obvious because they don’t want to face a fourth, powerful competitor.

“They should be scared because chances are they’re going to have more competition in the Canadian market if Verizon comes in and they are going to have to lower their prices and compete harder,” Lawford told CBC News. “It’s pretty rich of them to be talking about unfairness” when they already control 90 per cent of Canadian spectrum, he added.

Iain Grant of the SeaBoard Group, a telecommunications consultancy, said government policies to open up more competition are designed to shake things up.

“[The new rules weren't] meant to be a level playing field,” said Grant. “[They were] meant to give a leg up [to new competitors].”

“To talk of loopholes, as some do, is to not understand that the same companies who complain most loudly about loopholes in 2013 were the recipients of even greater public largesse in 1985 when the government gifted their initial spectrum as an incentive to build a wireless business in Canada,” said Grant.

wireless north america

Few companies have taken on the Canadian big three telecom providers because of their enormous market share, at least inside Canada.

Nine out of ten Canadian wireless users are subscribed to Bell, Telus or Rogers. Trying to convince a banker to extend capital loans to effectively confront a wireless oligopoly in a country with an enormous expanse of land but not people and find enough airwaves among the 15% not controlled by the big three is an uphill battle.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC Wireless war heats up 8-19-13.flv

CBC reports Industry Minister Moore believes increasing competition is the best way to cut Canadian cell phone bills. Regardless of whether Verizon enters Canada, the current government will continue to push for more competition. Even the threat of Verizon coming to Canada has already reduced prices. (2 minutes)

Why does Verizon want to enter Canada?

roamingAnalysts suspect Verizon’s interest in Canada has little to do with wooing Canadians to Big Red. Many suspect Verizon’s true interest is to make life easier for its traveling American customers who head north for business or pleasure.

Chief among the possible benefits is the elimination of roaming charges for Verizon customers.

“Verizon’s customers come into the country every day through all the bridges and ports of entries and they want to roam where they want to roam, whether that’s fishing in Saskatchewan or hunting in northern Ontario or wherever,” said Grant.

There are other apparent impediments that could limit the usefulness of Wind’s mobile network to Verizon. In addition to only operating in the largest Canadian cities, Wind’s infrastructure is built by Chinese firm Huawei and is not compatible with Verizon’s technology.

Huawei has been the subject of significant controversy because of its reported ties to the Chinese military. Fears that data could be intercepted by the Chinese government have kept many North American firms from doing business with the company.

Verizon also lacks bundling options for Canadian customers. The biggest three Canadian providers can offer telephone, television, and wired broadband service to their customers. Verizon can only offer wireless service.

Verizon has second thoughts

Perhaps most remarkable are late reports that Verizon may be having second thoughts about jumping into Canada’s wireless market.

Desjardins analyst Maher Yaghi said Verizon may have delayed its plans until after Ottawa’s auction of 700MHz spectrum planned for January to better understand the potential spectrum costs it will incur entering Canada.

Others speculate incumbent providers may be attempting to end the rationale for Verizon to enter Canada in the first place. One major development includes a much more favorable roaming deal for Verizon that could dramatically cut the costs for Verizon customers to roam on Canadian networks.

Regardless of what Verizon does, Industry Minister Moore says Canada’s goal of getting increased competition will continue.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC Verizon doubts 8-15-13.flv

CBC reports Verizon may be having second thoughts about entering Canada. Verizon may not be interested in entering a political battle to win licenses to provide service and may want to acquire its own spectrum before considering buying either Wind Mobile or another competitor like Mobilicity. (2 minutes)

Canadian Wireless Competition? One Down, Two to Go: Telus Acquires Mobilicity

mobilicityWhen Industry Canada announced it was planning to boost competition by setting aside certain spectrum for new competitors entering the wireless marketplace, the Conservative government promised Canadians they would see a new era of robust competition and lower prices as a result.

Today, it turns out the only competition around is watching which of the three largest wireless carriers snap up their newest competitors first.

Telus, Canada’s third largest wireless carrier, today announced it was acquiring Mobilicity for $380 million — almost exactly the amount of outstanding debt owed by the Data & Audio Visual Enterprises Holdings’ venture. That means Telus will pick up its competitor just by agreeing to pay its bills.

Mobilicity said it was burning through cash at an alarming rate and simply could not attract enough customers in its home service cities Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, to become profitable. It also reportedly lacked financial resources to take part in a forthcoming spectrum auction that would have been critical to the company’s long-term survival.

...to a mega-merger of Bell and Telus.

Informal merger talks among the three largest independent carriers — Wind Mobile, Public Mobile, and Mobilicity — reportedly went nowhere.

“Mobilicity has been losing a significant amount of money every month,” Mobilicity’s chief restructuring officer, William Aziz, said today. “The financial strength of Telus will allow the business to be continued in a way that will benefit customers and employees. An acquisition by Telus is the best alternative for Mobilicity.”

But that may not be the best alternative for Canadians. Regulators are expected to scrutinize the merger and current rules do not allow Telus to acquire the spectrum Mobilicity holds until next year. But with few other expected buyers, regulators may have no choice but to allow the deal to go through.

If approved, Telus will pick up Mobilicity’s 250,000 customers and likely switch them to Koodo Mobile, its prepaid division.

Minister Paradis

Minister Paradis

Mobilicity customers could do worse. Koodo Mobile, given a “C” grade by Canadian consumers, was Canada’s highest rated wireless carrier. That disparity hints at how much Canadians loathe their current wireless options.

Bay Street investors were not surprised by the announced merger, believing competition has its limits in a marketplace dominated by three enormous telecom companies — Bell (BCE), Rogers, and Telus — all collectively holding more than a 90% share of the Canadian wireless market. Many expect the remaining independent providers to also jettison their businesses or combine them in a last stand.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis, the Conservative government’s point man on independent competition in the wireless market, was caught off guard by the apparent faltering of the new carriers.

Paradis said he remains committed to making sure Canadians have a fourth choice for wireless service in every regional market in the country. But his only assured success is in Québec, where Vidéotron — the provincial cable company — competes with the big three providers. That competition has worked in that province to hold pricing down. According to The Globe & Mail, the average monthly bill in Québec dropped to $50.36 a month in 2011 from its peak in 2009 and is on par with where it stood in 2007. In comparison, according to CBC News, the average monthly wireless bill across Canada was $77 in 2013, up from $68 in last year’s survey.

Paradis is now pondering new regulations that would prevent the three largest carriers from buying out the remaining two independent providers just for their spectrum assets.

The merger will need regulatory approval from The Competition Bureau, Industry Canada, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Telus in Talks to Buy Mobilicity 4-13.flv

BNN reported back in April that Telus and Mobilicity were in acquisition talks. The news channel speaks with Maher Yaghi from Desjardins Securities about the implications the merger would have on the Canadian cell phone market and the prices consumers pay. (5 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Telus Acquiring Mobilicity 5-16-13.flv

BNN this morning reported the ball is back in Ottawa’s hands as the government tries to decide how it can salvage its wireless competition agenda. (6 minutes)

Canada’s Independent Wireless Providers Capitulate With “For Sale” Signs; Telus Interested

mobilicityCanada’s effort to expand mobile competition has likely failed with news that three of the most significant new independent entrants have put themselves up for sale, with one likely to be acquired by Telus, western Canada’s largest phone company.

With Bell Canada, Rogers Communications, and Telus dominating at least 90 percent of Canada’s wireless marketplace, breaking up the triopoly was unlikely to be easy, but three of Canada’s newest players that acquired spectrum just five years ago are already looking for exit strategies.

Bloomberg News reported Friday that Mobilicity is in talks to be imminently acquired by Telus for between $350-400 million. Public Mobile has hired investment bankers to find a buyer. Vimpelcom, Ltd., which owns Wind Mobile, announced it was “exploring its options, including divestment.”

telus bullThe three companies have competed with the dominant players for about three years with little success. Combined, the three have not managed to achieve even a combined 10 percent market share. Most sell unlimited talk and text plans to customers that would normally buy prepaid service.

Potentially slowing any sale is a requirement that none of the independent companies can transfer their spectrum licenses until 2014, a condition of the 2008 special spectrum auction that reserved prime frequencies for new competitors and put them off-limits to larger mobile companies.

Telus remains the most likely suitor of independent providers because the company lacks the spectrum assets of its larger competitors Bell and Rogers.

Mobilicity operates its HSPA+ “4G” network on Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) frequencies in the 1,700MHz range. Although Telus has considerable spectrum in British Columbia and Alberta — its home territory — the provider has considerably less in eastern Canada, particularly in large metropolitan cities. Mobilicity has a tiny market share in the Greater Toronto Area, yet its AWS spectrum equals that of Telus in the city. Telus could find an acquisition of Mobilicity the easiest way to bolster its available spectrum for future 4G deployment and expansion.

TELUS-Spectrum-Depth

Three small independent wireless providers hold almost as much combined spectrum as Telus holds today.

Any exit of a combination of Canada’s newest wireless players will likely be seen as a failure of the government’s efforts to bolster competition. The dominance among the three largest providers has left Canadians with high-cost plans and a wireless service contract that lasts one year longer than America’s standard two-year service agreement.

Industry Canada, the economic regulator fostering a growing, competitive and knowledge-based Canadian economy, had little to say about the news.

“Any transaction that requires regulatory approval will be considered accordingly,” said Alexandra Fortier, a spokeswoman for Industry Minister Christian Paradis. “We cannot comment on speculation.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Canadas newest wireless players seek buyers 4-12-13.flv

BNN reports industry consolidation is likely forthcoming in Canada’s wireless marketplace as Telus seeks to acquire independent provider Mobilicity. A financial analyst says the move is designed to curb budget-priced wireless service in Canada. Mobilicity would likely eventually be merged into Telus-owned Koodo Mobile, the company’s prepaid mobile division.  (5 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Globe and Mail Feds aim to open up wireless market 3-13.flv

Too little, too late? Industry Minister Christian Paradis says the Harper government wants to open up the wireless market to more players with another wireless spectrum auction. But now several of Canada’s newest independent providers are all up for sale, and the country’s dominant three may end up owning one or more of them.  (2 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Globe and Mail Market View Why we love to hate our wireless companies 3-13.flv

The Toronto Globe & Mail explores why Canadians hate their cell phone and mobile broadband providers so much.  (2 minutes)

Independent Cell Providers Resign from Canadian Wireless Telecom Association

cwta_logoCanada’s three major independent wireless companies have resigned from the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association after claiming the group maintained a consistent bias in favor of the three largest carriers in the country.

Wind Mobile Canada, Public Mobile, and Mobilicity announced their departure in a joint press release.

“From this point, the CWTA does not, and cannot claim to speak on behalf of the Canadian mobile wireless sector,” said the news release.

“It has been evident for quite some time that, rather than being a true industry association which represents the views of all players regardless of size, the CWTA has instead largely been an advocate for Rogers, Telus, and Bell, and often directly contrary to the interests of new entrant wireless carriers,” said Bob Boron, general counsel and senior vice president of legal & regulatory affairs for Public Mobile.

public mobile“We have spent the better part of three years repeatedly voicing our opposition to the CWTA on a wide range of matters to the point of issuing a press release in January 2011 that publicly expressed our dissent on the CWTA’s position on wireless consumer protection,” added Gary Wong, director of legal affairs for Mobilicity. “There seems to be a blatant disregard of the new entrants in favor of acting in the best interests of the big three carriers, and it is unacceptable.”

The carriers suggest WCTA officials lured them into the trade association to bolster claims the group represents the collective interests of Canadian mobile providers. Once enrolled as members, the independents claim their concerns were ignored on a variety of issues.

“When we first approached the CWTA, we were promised clear and fair representation on issues of true industry alignment. But despite making our objections and concerns abundantly clear on numerous occasions, the CWTA has repeatedly failed to honor this promise, leaving us no alternative but to withdraw,” said Simon Lockie, chief regulatory officer at Wind Mobile.

Among the major points of contention:

  • The independents favor transparency on mobile phone bills, with better disclosure of which services are optional or mandatory, the exact pricing of those services, contract termination fees and penalties. The three major carriers oppose anything beyond self-regulation;
  • The CWTA argues Canadians have a highly competitive wireless marketplace with rates to match. The independent providers strongly disagree, claiming Canadians pay some of the highest rates in the world for cell service;
  • The CWTA favors and supports three-year contracts for cell phone service, the independent providers do not.

“The many contributions of Wind, Mobilicity and Public Mobile will certainly be missed, and CWTA would welcome their return to the association in the future,” a CWTA official said in a written statement.

Cell Phone Companies Hoarding Cash/Credit for Spending Blitz on Canadian Spectrum

Upcoming wireless spectrum auctions are critically important for some of Canada’s newest players in the cell phone marketplace.  Most are working hard to make sure they have plenty to spend to secure new frequencies for advanced wireless services that will help them remain competitive with larger players.

Globalive Holdings, the parent company of Wind Mobile, has convinced backers to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in financing, so long as all of the money is spent on acquiring wireless spectrum.

Wind’s nearly 400,000 customers will appreciate the additional room for growth, and new customers may keep Wind in mind for advanced 4G networks most Canadian providers intend to build and expand into the new spectrum they acquire at an auction next year.

Much of the funding, estimated to approach nearly a half-billion dollars, is coming from Wind’s parent entities, Egypt-based Orascom Telecom and the European conglomerate VimpelCom that acquired Orascom earlier this year.  Because the Canadian government is expected to set-aside some of the valued 700MHz spectrum exclusively for bidding among new entrants in the market, Wind could walk away a big winner, particularly if other similar-sized competitors Mobilicity and Vidéotron Ltee./Quebecor have trouble raising enough money to remain competitive in the bidding.

As far as Canada’s largest cell companies are concerned, set-asides are unnecessary and they prefer a winner-take-all auction.  Rogers, in particular, has been lobbying hard to convince Canadian officials it needs access to the 700MHz spectrum up for auction to roll out service in rural communities and upgrade networks in larger cities.

Those who feel Canada’s cell phone marketplace is already too concentrated have little sympathy for Rogers’ point of view, and expect an auction free-for-all will mean the largest incumbent players will walk away with everything they can bid on.

Among smaller players, assuming the set-asides are in place, analysts expect Wind will probably secure the most spectrum, but Vidéotron is expected to stay competitive and walk away with at least some frequencies for use in its home province of Quebec.  Big losses among the smaller players could fuel calls for additional mergers and acquisitions among those carriers deemed to have been left behind.

The Canadian government is expected to be the biggest winner of all, netting a potential $3-4 billion from the spectrum sale.

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