Radio waves considered 'beachfront property' up for grabs for wireless bidders

MONTREAL – Consumers will soon get an indication whether there are any foreign telecoms with the billions and the brawn to push their way past the country’s three dominant carriers to compete for a piece of Canada’s wireless market.

Registration opens Tuesday for bids in a government auction to buy the radio waves needed to build cellphone networks. America’s AT&T, Norway’s Telenor and U.K.’s Vodafone have been rumoured to be interested, now that U.S. giant Verizon has announced it’s no longer considering an expansion north.

The identities of the bidders won’t be made public until Sept. 23, but the aggressive public relations campaign launched this summer by Canada’s big three telecoms — Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Telus (TSX:T) and Bell (TSX:BCE) — in reaction to Verizon’s interest may have “scared off” interest from outside, said analyst Troy Crandall of investment firm MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier.

The campaign sought to convince the public that Verizon’s entry into the Canadian market would not be good for consumers. They urged the federal government to rescind the foreign ownership rules they said gave outsiders an unfair advantage to bid on wireless spectrum.

“It just seems too late in the game,” said Crandall about potential entrants. While he said there could be a wild card in the auction, there’s not a lot of time for another foreign player to get its bid ready if it was waiting to hear what Verizon would do.

“To investors, it’s probably a relief,” he said, noting the value of Rogers, Telus and Bell stock took a collective hit of about $15 billion on the financial markets after news broke that Verizon was considering Canada.

But for consumers who had hoped they might have lower cellphone bills, it’s “probably a little bit of a letdown,” Crandall said.

Canaccord Genuity analyst Dvai Ghose questions whether there was ever much foreign interest, considering the regulatory hurdles and the cost.

Ghose said a foreign carrier would have to spend at least $3 billion, which would include buying a small, existing network as a base, purchasing spectrum and making network upgrades. It would then have to compete for customers against Bell, Telus and Rogers, which hold most of the market.

AT&T declined to comment on its plans for the auction, as did other foreign telecoms.

The auction of 700 megahertz spectrum, which analysts have called “beachfront property” due to its value, could raise a lot of cash for the federal government.

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. The signal can also travel greater distances and, in rural Canada, will require fewer cellphone towers to provide coverage. This new spectrum also will help meet consumers’ growing smartphone and tablet use.

“This is really prime real estate and there is a limited amount,” said analyst Brahm Eiley of the Convergence Consulting Group.

“That’s why the price for this stuff is going to be very high,” Eiley said.

The last auction in 2008 raised $4.3 billion and brought new players Wind Mobile, Mobilicity, Public Mobile, Eastlink and Quebecor’s Videotron to the wireless market.

The Conservative government wants four wireless players in each region to encourage more competition and lower prices for consumers.

It refused to change the auction rules despite the urging by Bell, Telus and Rogers. They argued it was unfair that new players with less than 10 per cent of Canada’s wireless market — which would have included a giant like Verizon — could buy two blocks of prime 700 megahertz spectrum while they could only bid on one block each. Participants will be bidding on spectrum across the country.

Earlier this month, Verizon said it was no longer interested in competing in the Canadian market after announcing it would pay US$130 billion for a 45 per cent stake in Verizon Wireless owned by British cellphone carrier Vodafone.

Bell chief executive George Cope repeated that he isn’t happy with the rules but will bid for more spectrum in the auction.

“We have the rules the government put in,” Cope told a recent telecom conference. “They are very advantageous to a new entrant. So how they play out during the auction, we’ll just have to see.”

Analyst Iain Grant said if there aren’t any foreign bidders, it doesn’t mean the government’s strategy of supporting more competition is a failure.

“When the envelopes are opened, we’ll find out whether we have a horse race or not,” said Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group.

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