Consolidation in Canadian wireless

The closing session of The 2009 Canadian Telecom Summit featured the leaders of the 3 new entrant wireless carriers: Tony Lacavera of Wind Mobile, Dave Dobbin of Mobilicity and Alek Krstajic of Public Mobile. Some of their antics of the three trading barbs can be seen in videos captured by Mobile Syrup, and as we wrote at the time, Alek let loose with a zinger during his opening remarks:

Take a look at the three of us up here… two of us will not be here at next year’s telecom summit. Or we’ll be here but have different business cards.

With yesterday’s announced transaction and the government approval of TELUS acquiring Public Mobile’s spectrum, only one of those leaders, Tony Lacavera, still remains in place.

At the 2009 event, Alek had expressed hope to sell Public Mobile after acquiring many more customers.

Public Mobile, bidding as 6934579 Canada, bought 10 MHz of “less attractive” spectrum in the most populated parts of Ontario and Quebec for just $50M. Although the Minister’s statement says “G-block spectrum is not used for the latest data plans and smart phones in Canada and is of a significantly lesser value than other types of spectrum”, the evolution of data services on Public Mobile was more constrained by its own business strategy to simply focus on basic voice and text services with just 5+5 MHz of spectrum. Like Sprint in the US, it deployed CDMA technology on the band. However, CDMA is coming to the end of its life cycle and access to low-cost G-block capable handsets is on the horizon. While Sprint is transitioning its spectrum to LTE, Public Mobile had no other bands to use for migrating its 280,000 customers.

TELUS still operates a CDMA network and virtually overnight, Public Mobile’s customers will be able to wake up to their handsets operating on the more robust national network. This will allow TELUS to shut down the Public Mobile network in its entirety and combine the G-Block spectrum with that it acquired earlier this year from Novus, likely to be used by TELUS as part of its arsenal for LTE.

Public Mobile is said to have 280,000 customers, a little less than 1% of the Canadian mobile wireless market. In the Minister’s statement yesterday, he confirmed an emphasis on maintaining competition in the market: “This transaction does not materially change the spectrum concentration of incumbents in this country and therefore will not diminish competition in our wireless sector.”

Mobilicity has had its client base decline to significantly less than 200,000 customers as the uncertainty of its future overhangs its operations. The incumbent acquisition clause in its spectrum licenses expire in just over 3 months. With only about 0.5% of the market, would its consolidation into an incumbent be judged differently?

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