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

Phillip Dampier October 13, 2011 Astroturf, Broadband Speed, Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Mobilicity, Public Policy & Gov't, Rogers, Vidéotron, Wind Mobile (Canada), Wireless Broadband Comments Off on 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.

Montréal métro to Get Underground Cell Service by 2013; Wi-Fi Later

Phillip Dampier October 13, 2011 Bell (Canada), Canada, Rogers, Telus, Vidéotron, Wireless Broadband 3 Comments

A joint venture between Rogers, Videotron, Bell and Telus will bring major improvements in cell phone service in Montréal’s métro by the end of 2013.

Isabelle Tremblay, a spokesperson for the Société de transport de Montréal, which manages the métro system, told the Montréal Gazette there has been a plan in place for several years to have a cellular network in the subway tunnels, which are often cell-phone-free zones because of reception problems.

Montreal métro provides coverage in these areas of Montreal.

None of the carriers involved would confirm the report, originally published in La Presse, but subway cell phone networks are not unprecedented.  Both New York and Washington, D.C. have cell service provided by underground antennas.  Many trains now also provide Wi-Fi service, and Montréal is expected to be no different.

Tremblay said Wi-Fi would come after cell phone service is established.  In most cases, carriers use third party contractors to construct and manage the networks on their behalf.  Only existing customers get to access the respective networks.

Canada’s Fiber Future: A Pipe Dream for Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and B.C.

Fiber optic cable spool

For the most populated provinces in Canada, questions about when fiber-to-the-home service will become a reality are easy to answer:  Never, indefinitely.

Some of Canada’s largest telecommunications providers have their minds made up — fiber isn’t for consumers, it’s for their backbone and business networks.  For citizens of Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver coping with bandwidth shortages, providers have a much better answer: pay more, use less Internet.

Fiber broadband projects in Canada are hard to find, because providers refuse to invest in broadband upgrades to deliver the kinds of speeds and capacity Canadians increasingly demand.  Instead, companies like Bell, Shaw, and Rogers continue to hand out pithy upload speeds, throttled downloads, and often stingy usage caps.  Much of the country still relies on basic DSL service from Bell or Telus, and the most-promoted broadband expansion project in the country — Bell’s Fibe, is phoney baloney because it relies on existing copper telephone wires to deliver the last mile of service to customers.

Much like in the United States, the move to replace outdated copper phone lines and coaxial cable in favor of near-limitless capacity fiber remains stalled in most areas.  The reasons are simple: lack of competition to drive providers to invest in upgrades and the unwillingness to spend $1000 per home to install fiber when a 100GB usage cap and slower speeds will suffice.

The Toronto Globe & Mail reports that while 30-50 percent of homes in South Korea and Japan have fiber broadband, only 18 percent of Americans and less than 2 percent of Canadians have access to the networks that routinely deliver 100Mbps affordable broadband without rationed broadband usage plans.

In fact, the biggest fiber projects underway in Canada are being built in unexpected places that run contrary to the conventional wisdom that suggest fiber installs only make sense in large, population-dense, urban areas.

Manitoba’s MTS plans to spend $125-million over the next five years to launch its fiber to the home service, FiON.  By the end of 2015, MTS expects to deploy fiber to about 120,000 homes in close to 20 Manitoba communities.  In Saskatchewan, SaskTel is investing $199 million in its network in 2011 and approximately $670 million in a seven-year Next Generation Broadband Access Program (2011 – 2017). This program will deploy Fiber to the Premises (FTTP) and upgrade the broadband network in the nine largest urban centers in the province – Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Weyburn, Estevan, Swift Current, Yorkton, North Battleford and Prince Albert.

“Saskatchewan continues to be a growing and dynamic place,” Minister responsible for SaskTel Bill Boyd said. “The deployment of FTTP will create the bandwidth capacity to allow SaskTel to deploy exciting new next generation technologies to better serve the people of Saskatchewan.”

But the largest fiber project of all will serve the unlikely provinces of Atlantic Canada, among the most economically challenged in the country.  Bell Aliant is targeting its FibreOP fiber to the home network to over 600,000 homes by the end of next year.  On that network, Bell Aliant plans to sell speeds up to 170/30Mbps to start.

In comparison, residents in larger provinces are making due with 3-10Mbps DSL service from Bell or Telus, or expensive usage-limited, speed-throttled cable broadband service from companies like Rogers, Shaw, and Videotron.

Bell Canada is trying to convince its customers it has the fiber optic network they want.  Its Fibe Internet service sure sounds like fiber, but the product fails truth-in-advertising because it isn’t an all-fiber-network at all. It’s similar to AT&T’s U-verse — relying on fiber to the neighborhood, using existing copper phone wires to finish the job.  Technically, that isn’t much different from today’s cable systems, which also use fiber to reach into individual neighborhoods.  Traditional coaxial cable handles the signal for the rest of the journey into subscriber homes.

A half-fiber network can do better than none at all.  In Ontario, Bell sells Fibe Internet packages at speeds up to 25Mbps, but even those speeds cannot compare to what true fiber networks can deliver.

Globe & Mail readers seemed to understand today’s broadband realities in the barely competitive broadband market. One reader’s take:

“The problem in Canada (and elsewhere) preventing wide scale deployment of FTTH isn’t the technology, nor the cost. It’s a lack of political vision and will, coupled with incumbent service providers doing whatever they can to hold on to a dysfunctional model that serves their interests at the expense of consumers.”


“The problem with incumbents is they only think in 2-3 year terms. If they can’t make their money back in that period of time, they’re not interested. Thinking 20, heck even 10 years ahead is not in their vocabulary.”

Canada’s Cellular Cartel: 3 Wireless Companies Control 94 Percent of the Market

Next time you wonder why you are paying substantially higher cell phone bills than your neighbors abroad, take note: just three cell phone companies control 94 percent of the wireless marketplace in Canada, with more than 23.5 million combined subscribers.  The four other significant carriers have a combined subscriber base of around 1.5 million, hardly worth noticing by the largest three:

Rogers Communications

The telecom giant Rogers controls the largest share of the Canadian wireless market with 9,127,000 subscribers as of the end of June.  Nearly 7.5 million of those customers are on two year contracts and pay an average bill of $70.07 per month.  Prepaid customers pay substantially less for their occasional-use phones: $16.14 a month.  Rogers adds more subscribers than it loses, picking up 591,000 new customers during the first quarter, while losing 456,000 current customers, winning a net gain of 135,000.

Data revenue is becoming increasingly important for Rogers, now constituting 35 percent of earnings for the company’s wireless division.


Coming in at second place is Bell Canada, with 7,283,000 customers.  Over 5.7 million are on contract, 1.6 million are using Bell prepaid phones.  Bell added just under 38,000 new customers last quarter, the smallest net add among the three largest providers.  The average contract customer pays Bell $63.18 a month; prepaid customers pay $16.88.

Telus Mobility

Telus, western Canada’s largest phone company, sells wireless service across the country and has become the third largest wireless provider with 5.8 million contract customers and 1.2 million prepaid clients.  Together, they pay an average of $58.88 a month.  Telus picked up 94,000 net additions last quarter, which is better than Bell but worse than Rogers.

Everyone Else

Among the rest, Saskatchewan’s phone company Sasktel had managed to reach 568,000 subscribers, mostly in the province, as of late March.  MTS Allstream Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Manitoba Telecom came in with 489,722 customers.  Videotron, Quebec’s biggest cable company, had 210,600 clients, mostly in Quebec.

Among the newest entrants, Wind Mobile, subject to considerable controversy for its foreign financial backing, may one day be a much larger player in Canada’s wireless marketplace, but not today.  It had just 271,000 customers as of March 31st.

Even fewer customers rely on some of Canada’s regional providers, which include companies like Thunder Bay Telephone, Lynx Mobility (co-owned by an aboriginal partner with a mission to serve rural Canada), Calgary-based AirTel, which is popular with oil/gas workers for its “push to talk” service, and Ice Wireless, which is the largest GSM carrier in northern Canada, reaching 70% of the population of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Canada’s largest three providers also own or control several “competitors” that mostly sell prepaid service.  Customers thinking they are escaping the big boys often really are not:

  • Fido is owned by Rogers;
  • Virgin Mobile Canada is owned by Bell;
  • Koodo Mobile is owned by Telus

Canada Moves to Digital TV: Canadian Pay TV Providers Move to Cash In

Two years after Americans dumped analog television in favor of digital over the air broadcasting, in just over two weeks many Canadians will discover their favorite free-TV signals gone from the analog airwaves forever.

Canada’s transition to digital TV will take a substantial step forward on Aug. 31st when many Canadian local television stations cease broadcasting in analog.  Canada’s pay television providers are taking full advantage of the transition, trying to persuade Canadians who watch their television signals over-the-air for free they will be better off paying for those signals going forward.

Part of the problem is that digital television signals, while “snow-free,” are not pixel-free in many areas distant from the transmitter.  As Americans in suburban locations discovered, those trusty indoor rabbit ears may be insufficient to receive an annoyance-free picture.

Digital television signals are not the nirvana some suggest.  The same passing vehicles and aircraft that caused wavy analog pictures or other interference can turn a digital picture into a frightfest of frozen picture blocks, digital raining pixels, and other effects that can make watching a difficult signal near impossible.

For Americans who thought the days of the external rooftop antenna were behind them, digital television changed all that, especially in more rural areas that could live with a slightly snowy analog picture, but found sub-optimal digital signals unwatchable.

Canada’s vast expanse, and its accompanying large network of low powered television repeater stations rebroadcasting signals from major stations in provincial capitals and large Canadian cities may prove to be an even greater reception challenge, especially in the Canadian Rockies and hilly terrain in eastern Canada.

Some Canadians experimenting with digital-to-analog converter boxes have found reception less practical than they originally thought.

Peter, a Stop the Cap! reader who lives near Oshawa, Ontario delivers some difficult news:

“Reception of digital signals from Toronto’s CN Tower has proved to be a lot more difficult in Oshawa than the existing analog signals,” Peter writes.  “We have no trouble getting truly local signals like CHEX-TV, which has a transmitter in analog serving Oshawa, but watching digital signals from Toronto really requires an outside antenna for good reception.”

Snow may be a thing of the past, but bad digital reception like this may be here to stay for many Canadian viewers.

Peter’s decision to erect a rooftop antenna opened the door to reception of analog and digital signals from Toronto and across Lake Ontario, where he can receive digital signals from some stations in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.  But it was an expense of several hundred dollars to get the work done.

“Cable and satellite companies are taking full advantage of the digital switch to try and get free-TV viewers to ‘upgrade’ to pay television, and they don’t hesitate to mention the expense and hassle of erecting rooftop antennas to guarantee good digital reception,” Peter says.

Peter can only imagine what digital reception will be like in the Canadian Rockies, where large networks of analog, mostly low-powered UHF transmitters deliver basic reception to important networks, especially CBC, outside of major cities.

“If you visit western Alberta or eastern B.C., good luck to you — we could barely watch over the air signals in most of the mountain towns,” Peter says. “Most people either have cable or satellite already.”

Not every television transmitter is scheduled to switch off analog service at the end of August.  Many rural areas are expected to retain analog signals for some time, in part because of the expense of digital conversion and concerns about reception quality.  But some areas, particularly near the U.S. border, are scheduled to drop analog signals regardless, potentially causing disruptions for plenty of free-TV viewers.  Ottawa is anxious to auction off the vacated frequencies for cell phone, Wi-Fi and wireless broadband use for an estimated $4 billion, and the demand is highest in cities along the U.S. border.

“As many as 1.4 million English-language viewers and 700,000 Francophone viewers may be left without a CBC signal,” Ian Morrison, spokesman for the non-profit Friends of Public Broadcasting, which monitors the CBC and promotes Canadian content on TV and radio told the Toronto Star. “For the most part, these are poorer and older people on fixed incomes who are of no interest to advertisers, but who rely for their news and connection to the community on the CBC, the nearest thing we have in this country to a public broadcaster.”

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission runs a website regarding the transition and includes a list of impacted television stations.  Canadian consumers who elect to purchase converter boxes for their analog televisions will pay full price for them — Ottawa has not followed Washington’s lead subsidizing their purchase with a coupon program.

Meanwhile, many pay television providers are running “digital TV upgrade” specials trying to get Canadians to walk away from free TV in favor of paid video packages:

Shaw Direct: Shaw’s direct to home satellite service has developed the best offer around for qualifying residents in 20 Canadian cities set to lose analog television: free service.

“The Local Television Satellite Solution is [for] households in 20 designated cities that have been receiving their television services over-the-air, and will lose over-the-air access to their local broadcaster because the analog transmitter is being shut down and will not be replaced by a digital transmitter,” a Shaw spokesperson told the Toronto Star. “Shaw will provide a household in a qualifying area with a free satellite receiver and dish that is authorized to receive a package of local and regionally relevant signals from Shaw Direct. There are no monthly programming fees provided that a household qualifies to participate in the program.”

The qualifying cities:

Barrie Fredericton Moncton Sherbrooke
Burmis Halifax Québec St John’s
Calgary Kitchener Saguenay Thunder Bay
Charlottetown Lethbridge Saint John Trois-Rivières
Edmonton London Saskatoon Windsor

For everyone else, Shaw Direct’s least expensive package is their Bronze – English Essentials tier which runs $41.99 a month.

Rogers Cable: Rogers is marketing a special package called Rogers Digital TV which offers up to 85 channels for $10.14 a month, which includes all fees.  Many of the channels are included for the first year as a teaser.  After that, customers are left with mostly local stations and filler (including — we’re not kidding — the Aquarium Channel, which shows exactly what you think it does.  Remember, this is the same cable company that brought you the Swiss Chalet Rotisserie Channel.)

“It’s a fine way to get people used to paying for television, and Rogers introductory price is sure to increase at some point,” suspects Peter.  “Maybe you can save a few dollars using those Swiss Chalet meal coupons, though.”

Telus: Western Canada’s largest phone company doesn’t offer much, in comparison.  A basic package of Telus IPTV over your phone line — Optik TV — starts at $41 a month for the first six months.  Telus Satellite TV starts at $38.27 a month, for the first half of a year.  Prices run higher after that.  The most Telus will toss in is a $50 credit for a customer referral from a friend or family member.

Look on the bright side: When you pay for Rogers Cable, you can finally get to watch The Rotisserie Channel. The spinning chickens are waiting for you, in digital clarity, 24 hours a day on Ch. 208.

Bell: Another phone company with not a whole lot on offer.  Bell’s basic service, which includes TV stations from the U.S. and Canada, starts at $33.50 a month.

Videotron: Quebec’s largest cable company is pitching a combo mini-pack with basic service for $21.29 a month and a required extra channel package starting at $11.17 a month.  That’s around $33 a month.

Can you watch online?  The CRTC says you may find many of your favorite shows available online for free viewing, but includes the important caveat: most Canadian ISP’s engage in classic Internet Overcharging schemes that include a monthly usage allowance that will curtail substantial online viewing.  It should come as little surprise most of the providers in the pay television business in Canada also happen to be the largest Internet Service Providers as well.

About 93 percent of Canadians currently receive television from some form of pay television provider — cable, telco TV, or satellite, according to the CBC.  But some of the 7 percent who do not are at risk of losing Canada’s public broadcaster after the conversion.  While CBC owns most of the stations and transmitters it broadcasts from, it also affiliates with private stations in certain cities where it does have its own presence.

Come Sept. 1, no over-the-air CBC signals of any kind will be transmitted from London and Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario; Sherbrooke, Chicoutimi, Quebec City and Trois-Rivières in Quebec; Saint John and Moncton in New Brunswick; Saskatoon, Sask., and Lethbridge, Alta.  These are all cities where private stations provided CBC service.  Viewers in these areas will need a pay television subscription, or simply go without.

For some of those already subscribing to cable, Sept. 1 also signals the end of some of their favorite stations, as CRTC requires cable providers to prioritize local stations over more distant ones.  In southeastern Ontario, for example, a number of viewers will lose access to CBLT, Toronto’s CBC station, and CFTO, Toronto’s CTV affiliate, in favor of “more local” stations in Kingston, Ottawa, and Peterborough.

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