Rogers dampens LTE expectations again

Once again wireless data revenues have pushed Rogers Communications Inc. to a bright financial quarter. For the period ending March 31, the company chalked up net income of $408 million thanks to a 40 per cent increase in wireless data revenue.

Company CEO Nadir Mohamed, who will head Rogers’ presentation to shareholders Thursday at its annual general meeting in Toronto, described the quarter as “solid.”

What was just as interesting was his attempt to dampen speculation the company might shift its wireless data technology to LTE. More about that later.

Expecting that BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada would flood the country with marketing because it was the lead telecom provider during February’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Rogers eased off pushing its mass market Fido brand during the quarter in favour of going after what Mohamed calls “high value customers” who buy smart phones and are eager consumers of wireless data.

The tactic paid off: During the quarter Rogers added 348,000 smart phone buyers. In fact it sold more of Apple Inc.’s iPhones in the quarter than it did during the same period a year ago.

Anticipating vigorous competition from new entrants this year such as Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and Videotron, Rogers has been cutting costs and laying off staff, which is beginning to show up on its bottom line.

During a call with financial analysts, Mohamed suggested he’s in no rush to move Rogers wireless data network from HSPA+ to LTE. Recently Shaw Communications Inc. of Calgary said it is seriously looking at LTE for its new wireless data network, expected to launch late next year. The move would make Shaw the first Canadian carrier to adopt LTE, a so-called 4G wireless system. In the U.S., Verizon Wireless and MetroPCS say they will launch LTE service in select cities by the end of the year, while AT&T Inc. says it will add an LTE network next year.

However, as he has said before, Mohamed is in no rush. “HSPA has a lot of life left in it,” he said. Right now Rogers’ network can offer speeds – under ideal conditions – of up to 21 Mbps. Later this year devices will be available that can handle twice that, he said, and with upgrades can go up to 84 Mbps. LTE offers the potential of 100 Mbps, but its standard hasn’t been ratified yet, nor are there any USB dongles or handsets available yet.

“We have no plans to move to LTE any time soon,” said Mohamed.

Whether that will change if Shaw does become the technology leader is the question. Of course, Shaw could be bluffing.

On the other hand, the company’s chief technology officer, told the anlaysts that it will be “some time” before LTE handsets with a voice client are available. Bob Berner, the company’s chief technology officer added that Rogers is “watching closely” those who are deploying what he called this “bleeding edge” technology.

“We are in an excellent radio spectrum position,” he added. Some carriers outside Canada say they have to go to LTE because they are short of HSPA spectrum, he said. “We are not in that position.” Rogers has enough spectrum for HSPA “for quite some time to come.”

Despite the increasing number of smart phones it’s selling, Mohamed added, Rogers is seeing “no big explosion” in demand on the wireless data network.

“We have a lot of spectrum,” Mohamed added. “Our spectrum position is far, far better than just about any operator.” Plus, through its Inukshuk partnership with BCE Inc., Rogers has access to more spectrum.
No one asked Mohamed how soon he wants the CRTC to hold the next spectrum auction.

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