Mark Goldberg

Do market results rule out the need to mandate MVNOs?

A big week ahead for telecom regulatory departments.

The revised schedule for the CRTC’s review of mobile wireless services (TNC 2019-57) are due on November 22, with the oral hearing phase scheduled to begin February 18, 2020. Final submissions in that regulatory proceeding are currently scheduled for March 23, 2020.

A week and a half ago, I wrote about the net new subscriber additions in the past quarter. A few days later, in a November 11 research report, Scotiabank argues that the recent quarter’s financial results released by Canadian mobile carriers are indicators that there isn’t a need for regulators to mandate the establishment of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).

According to the Scotiabank Converging Networks research note “the most important part of the proceeding revolves around the question: will the CRTC mandate Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) access?” Scotiabank believes the decision will be among the most important regulatory rulings since the new-entrant AWS-1 spectrum set-aside in 2008.

According to Scotiabank, the facilities-based competition that emerged from the 2008 decision, giving rise to mobile operators Quebecor (Videotron), Shaw (Freedom Mobile) and Eastlink, “looks sustainable.”

Quebecor has been a wireless facilities-based competitor in Quebec for a decade. Is that not sustainable enough? We estimate the company has now captured approximately 19% market share in the province, and, with its new Fizz brand, the momentum has actually accelerated. We estimate Freedom’s market share of covered population (POP) at just under 10%, and we see share gains continuing, driven by network quality improvement, and supported by network and spectrum investment.

Scotiabank’s research found that Shaw and Quebecor’s combined share of new subscribers has reached approximately 30%.

Wireless key performance indicators show that competition has been rising with a long runway. In particular, all three incumbents’ ARPUs are now in decline and postpaid churn is rising. We believe these trends have been indirectly driven by competition from Shaw and Quebecor. As we noted above, we do not foresee either slowing down until they have achieved their market share objectives, which we believe is in the 20%-30% range of covered POP. At their current market share (of POP covered) and our estimate of the pace of share gains, we believe Quebecor still has another five years before it reaches 25% share and Shaw has 10 years of market share gains ahead before it reaches 20% share.

According to the Scotiabank report, the “real sustainable competition” is expected to encourage Bell, TELUS and Rogers to push forward with investment in 5G as a differentiator. Conversely, Scotiabank warns that “heavy-handed regulation such as regulated MVNOs may drive prices down temporarily, it will likely deter the move to 5G” because of an increased uncertainty of returns on future investment and a higher cost of capital.

We believe the United States offers a good example. Competition driven by T-Mobile and Sprint Corp. has driven Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ-N) to accelerate 5G investments, and, in the case of AT&T Inc. (T-N), to invest in media. While both Verizon and AT&T pursued different strategies, their objectives were similar in that they both pursued investments in areas where they thought would help differentiate against T-Mobile. This was all driven by challengers making network investments to compete against Verizon and AT&T, particularly in the case of T-Mobile.

Scotiabank’s recognizes that regulators face a “delicate act of balancing competition and investment incentives. A wrong move could have years of unintended consequences.” The report discusses a number of these potential unintended consequences:

  • Large companies with global scale that are not current telecom service providers could become MVNOs under mandated MVNO regulations.
  • Large global companies entering the MVNO market selling wireless services as loss leaders would commoditize and cause a significant decline in prices in the short term, causing investments in next generation network investments to decline in the medium to long term and causing network quality to ultimately suffer
  • Smaller facilities-based wireless operators like Freedom, Vidéotron and Eastlink (the same companies that have created the competition over the past decade) are more likely to be affected by MVNOs than the incumbents

But Scotiabank warns “Even if the regulators knew of these consequences, trying to establish further regulations to prevent them may just add further complexity with less regulatory certainty.” For more coverage of the Scotiabank report, see the write-up by Greg O’Brien in “Wireless results show mandated MVNO is the wrong way to go, says report“.

A few weeks ago, I discussed important data arising from Statistics Canada’s release of the Internet Use Survey. That study included important information about adoption rates of connectivity and for those who don’t have a smartphone, asking why. In the current CRTC proceeding, will affordability concerns be backed by data?

Submissions are due at the end of this week. Scotiabank believes the filing by the Competition Bureau will carry significant weight. The CRTC’s schedule set January 13, 2020 for parties to reply.

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