TORONTO/NEW YORK Sprint Corp and T-Mobile US Inc confirmed on Thursday they will not participate in Canada's upcoming auction of prized wireless spectrum, joining larger rival Verizon Communications Inc in shunning the market.
The decision by the big U.S. wireless operators helped lift shares of BCE Inc, Rogers Communications Inc, and Telus Corp, which together control about 90 percent of the Canadian mobile market.
The three stocks had already rallied earlier this month when Verizon disclosed it would not enter Canada for now, ending months of speculation that it would buy two small Canadian operators and bid for airwaves in the January 2014 auction.
The entry of a foreign giant like Verizon would have sliced into the profits of the Canadian players and forced higher bids at the spectrum auction, analysts said.
AT&T Inc declined to comment on whether it had submitted an application by the Canadian government's Tuesday deadline for companies to register for the auction.
But Scotia Capital telecom analyst Jeff Fan said in a note to clients that all four major U.S. wireless operators had confirmed they wouldn't be bidding.
The companies decided not to enter due to a likely unattractive return on investment, regulatory risks on both sides of the border, and a focus on the much larger U.S. market, Fan wrote in the note published late on Wednesday.
Shares in Telus jumped more than 2 percent by midafternoon on the Toronto Stock Exchange, while Rogers gained 1.2 percent and Bell was up 0.3 percent in a declining market.
FOREIGN COMPETITION FEARS
The Canadian government will publish a list of bidders for the 700 megahertz spectrum next Monday, following Tuesday's deadline to submit an application and a relatively cheap and refundable deposit.
The 700 MHz airwaves are highly valued for their ability to penetrate buildings and travel long distances, and are being used in the United States to build high-speed networks.
Ottawa is hoping to spark more competition in the wireless industry via the auction, by blocking Bell, Telus and Rogers from bidding on more than one prime frequency block in each region.
Telus Corp said on Tuesday it plans to bid in the auction, while BCE Inc's chief executive told an investor conference earlier this month that the company would be bidding. Rogers declined to comment ahead of the official release of applicants.
Well-funded challengers could still emerge, with private equity groups seen as the most likely consolidators of the three, closely-held small operators that entered the industry after a 2008 wireless spectrum auction: Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and Public Mobile.
"Recent private equity investments have been made in Public Mobile and Mobilicity, while Accelero remains an interested bidder for the Wind assets," said Macquarie analyst Greg MacDonald. "We have also heard that larger telco-focused private equity firms have remained interested in the event that Verizon does not invest."
Wind Mobile, an upstart challenger backed by Europe-focused Vimpelcom Ltd, said late on Monday that it intends to participate in the auction.
Telenor ASA, a large minority shareholder in Vimpelcom, had no comment on whether it would bid. A source with knowledge of the company's plans says they are not interested.
Mobilicity, which is struggling to find a buyer and is bleeding cash, has not said whether it will bid. Privately-held Public Mobile declined to comment.
Privately-held cable company Eastlink, which also bought airwaves in 2008 but didn't launch service in its Maritimes footprint until this year, declined to comment on a Cartt.ca report it will bid.
Regional operator Manitoba Telecom Services Inc said earlier this month it does not plan to bid outside of its home province.
Quebec-focused Quebecor did not respond to requests for comment.
(Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Kenneth Barry)