By Randall Palmer and Alastair Sharp
OTTAWA/TORONTO Feb 19 Canadian
telecommunications companies paid a record C$5.27 billion ($4.78
billion) in an auction to secure wireless airwave licenses, the
federal government said on Wednesday, as a new national
challenger emerged from Quebec.
The stronger-than-expected result was a windfall for
taxpayers and a welcome outcome for the ruling Conservative
party, which has made pro-consumer wireless policies a key plank
of its 2015 re-election strategy.
The high prices will likely be viewed less positively by
shareholders of the country's major telecom companies and could
weigh on their shares when the market reopens on Thursday.
"To be quite frank, I thought this would be a much more
sedate auction with people sitting on their hands, it turns out
to be not so," said Iain Grant, managing director of telecom
consultancy Seaboard Group.
Market leader Rogers Communications Inc was by far
the biggest spender, paying out C$3.29 billion, or more than 60
percent of the total, to grab a so-called prime block in every
region of the country except its three remote northern
But it was Quebecor Inc's Videotron that made the
biggest splash at the auction, as the regional cable and
wireless company expanded its reach outside its home base in the
mostly French-speaking province of Quebec.
The two other major national players, BCE Inc's
Bell and Telus Corp, also scooped up large chunks of the
700 megahertz spectrum, which is valued for its ability to carry
a signal over long distances and to penetrate buildings, making
it useful for both urban and rural areas.
Winners of the 700 MHz spectrum, vacated by television
broadcasters during their transition to digital signals, will
help support booming demand for mobile data such as video
streaming, though the cost to improve networks could constrain
profit margins just as subscriber growth starts to plateau.
"It seems that Rogers had a greater appetite than Bell or
Telus and Videotron seems to have come through the middle," said
Quebecor paid C$233 million for airwaves in Ontario, Alberta
and British Columbia, as well as Quebec. Those four provinces
combined are home to much of Canada's population.
Rogers said it was happy it was able to secure particularly
wide blocks of airwaves in all major markets.
"Not all 700 MHz spectrum in the auction was the same; we
secured the beachfront property we wanted," Rogers CEO Guy
Laurence said in a statement.
Videotron also beamed about what it was able to achieve -
potential coverage of four in five Canadians - for substantially
less than its national peers.
"Given the way the auction unfolded, Quebecor Media could
not pass up the opportunity to invest in licenses of such great
intrinsic value in the rest of Canada," Videotron CEO Robert
Dépatie said. "We now have a number of options available to us
to maximize the value of our investment."
Industry Minister James Moore, who engaged in a public spat
last summer with Rogers, BCE and Telus, told reporters the
auction results validated Ottawa's goal of promoting four
competitors in each region.
"The outcome of the auction supports more choice for
Canadians by enabling a fourth wireless player in every region
of the country," Moore said. "There were those who doubted
whether or not this would be realized in this auction. Those
doubters have now been silenced."
A lack of interest from major foreign telecoms and late
withdrawals by small domestic operators spurred speculation that
bidding would be subdued. Initial estimates were that the
government would raise C$1.5 billion to C$2.5 billion.
Analysts raised their forecasts this week to around C$5
billion on the assumption that Rogers, Videotron and others
Ryan Bushell, a portfolio manager at Leon Frazer, which
holds positions in the three big telecoms, said the proceeds
"The numbers made my eyes pop out of my head, the Rogers
number especially," he said. "That's a big number. That's
probably multiples of what investors thought Rogers were going
to spend, so that is going to be a concern and likely weigh on
Telus and Bell share a national wireless network, meaning
each only needs to spend roughly half as much as Rogers to
acquire airwaves and expand and improve the network.
But Rogers ended up paying almost double Telus and Bell's
combined outlay. Telus bid C$1.14 billion, while Bell spent
The total proceeds far exceeded the minimum opening bids of
Seaboard's Grant said Videotron must now plan its expansion,
perhaps with the aid of a wholesale agreement or other
partnership with other cable companies or Wind Mobile, a recent
entrant which had to pull out of the auction late after its
funding dried up.
Wind CEO Anthony Lacavera said ahead of the results that he
remains open to possibly co-operating or sharing spectrum with
other recent entrants, which would include Videotron.
Wind already has almost 700,000 subscribers in Ontario,
Alberta and British Columbia, while Videotron has grabbed more
than half a million customers since launching in Quebec in 2010.
Regional operators other than Quebecor were more restrained,
with companies focused on the provinces of Manitoba,
Saskatchewan and the Atlantic region all acquiring airwaves in
their home markets.
The auction was completed on Feb. 13, Industry Canada said.
The last major auction of wireless licenses in Canada in
2008 raised C$4.25 billion for the government, which is
essentially leasing access to the publicly owned assets.
An auction of 700 MHz frequency in the United States, with
10 times the population, raised almost $20 billion in 2008,
while in Australia last year one-third of the airwaves went
The Australian auction raised almost A$2 billion, but also
included spectrum in the 2.5 GHz range, which Canada plans to
sell next year.