Cooperation, not acquisition, might be better option for Quebecor

Put simply: Under the right conditions we are ready, willing and able to become
Canada’s fourth wireless competitor.

With that statement two months ago, new Quebecor CEO Pierre Dion launched a campaign to create fertile ground for his company to expand its wireless operation nationally, and become the fourth national wireless player that the Conservative government has been so desperate to see arrive.

Quebecor’s main issue is roaming — the fees it has to pay other carriers when its subscribers use their networks. Until it can build a national network that rivals those of the Big Three in coverage (something that would take several billion dollars to do), it would have to offer its subscribers access to someone else’s network, and at fees that would still allow it to undercut those networks’ operators on prices.

The CRTC is holding a public hearing in September on wholesale wireless services that should address this issue. The commission will try to determine if the market is sufficiently competitive and if not, what it can do to fix that. Quebecor would like low, regulated wireless wholesale rates, particularly for data. Bell, Telus and Rogers, needless to say, aren’t in favour.

And just two weeks ago the commission slapped Rogers on the wrist for exclusive roaming deals that it determined were anti-competitive.

Quebecor’s hand

At the moment, Quebecor’s network covers populated areas of Quebec and the National Capital Region. It also has a deal with Rogers that allows Videotron customers to use Rogers’s network where necessary. A year ago, the companies signed a 20-year agreement to build a shared wireless LTE network in Videotron’s existing territory.

The thought of Videotron becoming a national player took off in February after it purchased licenses in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia for $233 million. Because the big three were limited in the amount of spectrum they could buy, and new players like Wind and Mobilicity didn’t have the financial means to spend that kind of money, Videotron got a deal it simply couldn’t pass up. The licences could be worth a lot more than that, even with the limitation that they can’t be sold to Bell, Rogers or Telus.

The rest of Canada is split up between other regional players: MTS in Manitoba, SaskTel in Saskatchewan, and Eastlink in Atlantic Canada and Northern Ontario. They also got good deals on spectrum because those frequencies were reserved for smaller players.

So even if Videotron wanted to become a national player, it would need to team up either with one of the big three or all of these smaller providers. Plus building out networks in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

It has been suggested very openly that Videotron would be interested in buying either Wind Mobile or Mobilicity (or both) to instantly get a foothold in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta. This is important because next March will see another spectrum auction from Industry Canada, and its rules reserve licences for operators other than the Big Three that are already operating in those territories. Unless Videotron sets up its network in the next six months, it’s bidding potential is limited. But acquire Wind and/or Mobilicity, neither of which have the capacity to participate in the auction, and Videotron can make another government-assisted investment.

Except Videotron doesn’t have enough cash for such an acquisition. So it would need some source of money to step up to help it. And the clock is ticking.


But spectrum licenses and cash aren’t the only impediments to Videotron’s wireless expansion. Even if it develops a decent network, Videotron has no other infrastructure in the rest of Canada. It can’t bundle wireless with cable TV and Internet like it does in Quebec. It can’t leverage its brand, or set up Videotron corners in Archambault shops in the rest of Canada.

And then there’s the politics. Pierre Karl Péladeau is still the controlling shareholder of Quebecor and Videotron. And he’s not willing to put his stake in a blind trust until he becomes a minister (and even then it would come with an order not to sell the company). So the federal government’s best hope for a company that would give a shot in the arm to competition in wireless is one owned by a devoted separatist. It’s not exactly the kind of company the government would want to bend backwards to help. And that’s saying nothing about consumers who might see switching to Videotron as tantamount to funding Quebec separation.


But maybe there’s another way. What if, instead of buying Wind and Mobilicity outright, it partnered with one or both, giving them enough cash to participate in the March auction and allowing their subscribers to use each other’s networks seamlessly? For that matter, why not do the same with MTS, SaskTel and Eastlink? Imagine a national wireless player made up of regional players, all with the same problem of national roaming. It would take less cash than one company gobbling up the others, and avoids the problem of having to deal with Quebecor’s not-so-great brand outside of Quebec.

There are other possibilities, too. Shaw, which is active in B.C. and Alberta and has a lot of money but doesn’t have a wireless network, could become involved, and partner with Wind or Mobilicity or Videotron to offer a wireless service they could bundle.

Perhaps it’s just pie-in-the-sky dreaming, and I’m sure people will point out a bunch of practical problems with these ideas that would make them unrealistic. But if Ottawa really wants a fourth wireless player (even though experience in other countries suggest the market might not be able to support more than three), this sounds to me like a way to get there.

Of course, it would require Quebecor playing nice with others and swallowing a lot of humble pie.

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