Two potential bidders for January’s 700 MHz spectrum auction have pulled out of the running, leaving only 12 approved participants for some of the most valuable frequencies the government has put up for purchase since the cellular business started.

Industry Canada posted its final list of approved bidders late Friday, which showed B.C. telecom equipment maker Vecima Networks and a numbered Alberta company withdrawing their applications to bid. Earlier an application by investment house Birch Hill Partners was also withdrawn.

That leaves only new three carriers that came to market after buying spectrum in 2008 – Quebecor’s Videotron, Wind Mobile’s parent Globalive Wireless Management Corp., and Bragg Communications – who will bid in the 2014 auction.

Financially-troubled Mobilicity, which is staving off creditors, isn’t participating in the auction, although one of its major backers, executive chair John Bitove, is in the 700 MHz auction through a company called Feenix Wireless. Public Mobile, another 2008 spectrum buyer, is being bought by Telus Communications.

Vancouver’s Novus Wireless is also a 2014 bidder. It bought PCS spectrum in the G-block similar to Public Mobile’s in B.C. and said it was looking to build a network. Instead over the summer Novus sold its frequencies to Telus.

Ottawa had hoped that the 700 MHz auction would spur foreign investment in the wireless industry in part because characteristics of the frequencies make them so appealing for smart phones. The Harper government set the stage for foreign investment by tilting the rules in the 2008 auction,  setting aside spectrum only for new entrants. Then last year it changed rules so foreign companies could buy all of a carrier with less than 10 per cent of the market.

Over the summer reports were flying that U.S. carrier Verizon Communications was looking at buying Wind and possibility Mobilicity. However, it decided instead to focus on its domestic market.

Because of a blackout on bidders talking about the auction, it isn’t known what the strategies of the approved bidders will be. Videotron, with its cable network in Quebec, can be expected to focus entirely on that province. Headquartered in Halifax, Bragg bought spectrum in 2008 largely in the Maritimes – where it opened a wireless network this year – as well as in Northern and Central Ontairo, and Grand Prairie, Alta. It may want to focus on Atlantic Canada.

Globalive operates in Ottawa and southern Ontairo, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Chairman Anthony Lacavera has always talked about wanting to build a national cellular network. However, it is unknown how much the company’s major financial backer, Amsterdam-based VimpelCom Ltd., is willing to commit. It may decide to narrow its bidding because VimpelCom has been looking to sell its stake in Wind or find a partner.

Other approved bidders are Saskatchewan’s SaskTel and Manitoba’s MTS. Both are expected to keep their bidding on their home provinces.

That leaves country’s biggest carriers,  Bell Mobility, Rogers Communications and Telus – who combined have over 90 per cent of the wireless subscribers – expected again to take the lion’s share of the spectrum.

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