Increased competition from new entrants pushes up rate of wireless adoption, figures show. However, the big three still have the overwhelming number of subscribers

Rogers, Bell, Telus still dominate wireless

The increased competition from four new wireless companies gave a slight boost to the rate at which Canadians adopted the technology last year, according to an industry association.

Figures complied by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CTWA), which represents most of the carriers in the country, at the end of 2010 there were just over 24.5 million wireless subscribers here, up 7.51 per cent (or 1.71 million subscribers) over 2009.

By comparison, the number of subscribers in 2009 was up 6.2 per cent over the year before.

For the year, the total number of net new subscribers was up 22.13 per cent over 2009. That compares to a 20 per cent increase in 2009 over 2008.

As expected after only a year or less of open doors for some new entrants, the big three – BCE Inc.’s Bell Mobility, Rogers Communications Inc, and Telus Corp. – still have the overwhelming number of subscribers: Together they had a combined 23 million of the 24.5 million subscribers.

The leader was still Rogers, with just under 9 million subscribers, followed by Bell and its affiliates with 7.24 million and Telus with 6.97 million.

The Bell companies closed the gap with Rogers last year, behind 1,735,000 subscribers. In 2009, the Bells were 2,161,000 behind Rogers.

Meanwhile Telus slightly lost ground. In 2010 it had just over 2 million fewer wireless subscribers than Rogers, while in 2009 it had 1,97 million fewer wireless customers than the cableco.

 The true impact of the four new entrants now operating won’t be felt until next year because only Toronto-based Wind Mobile has operated for a full calendar year.

Industry observers believe the competition will really become heated whebn two well-funded cable companies – Shaw Communications Inc. in the West and Bragg Communications Inc. in the Maritimes – launch their wireless service. Shaw has delayed its launch until 2012, while Bragg, which operates Eastlink cable, has been silent on its plans but might start later this year.

In its latest report Convergence Consulting, a Toronto market research firm, predicted that by the end of this year new wireless companies will have six per cent of the total market, up from about two per cent at the end of 2010. By the end of 2014, it believes new entrants will capture 16 per cent of wireless subscribers.

While the 2010 numbers include Wind Mobile (which launched in December, 2009) and the Videotron cable division of Montreal-based Quebecor Inc. (which launched in September, 2010), they don’t include subscribers from Mobilicity or Public Mobile.

A spokesman for the CWTA said those two privately-held startups didn’t report figures to the association. Wind Mobile is also privately-held, although its biggest investor is publicly-traded Orascom Telecom (now part of VimpelCom Inc.), which reports its numbers. Quebecor is publicly-traded.

It isn’t believed the Mobilicity and Public Mobile figures would cause a significant change in the 2010 percentages. Both Toronto-based companies only operated for seven months last year. Last year the SeaBoard Group telecommunications consultancy estimated Mobilicity would have 36,000 subscribers and Public Mobile 24,000 by September.

Mobilicity just started wireless service in its fifth city, Calgary. It also operates in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa. Public Mobile operates in the Toronto and Montreal areas.

Wind Mobile told the CWTA that at the end of 2010 it had just over 232,600 subscribers.

Videotron, which operates only in Quebec, had 92,600. That figure doesn’t split out how many subscribers were on its new HSPA-based wireless network, for which it owns spectrum, and how many were on its older network using spectrum leased from Rogers Communications Inc.

Developments in the next few years will also have an impact on wireless adoption. Sometime early next year Telus Corp. will start offering 4G LTE wireless data service in major cities, which is sure to be matched by Bell and Rogers. Wind Mobile and Mobilicity have yet to say what their plans are.

Technically, LTE promises faster speeds than the existing 3.5G HSPA+ data networks that all but Public Mobile run on. That will appeal to subscribers who want to run bandwidth-intensive applications like videoconferencing on mobile devices and might be a lure to some subscribers. On the other hand no Canadian carrier has announced pricing.

Also, it is expected that initially the LTE deployments won’t be markedly faster than HSPA+, which under ideal circumstances offers maximum download speeds of 42 Mbps. Users likely see average speeds of around 10 Mbps.

A recent test by Network World U.S. of Verizon’s LTE network in Boston found handset speeds ranged from 4 Mbps to “well over 10 Mbps.”

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