Wind Mobile keen for investor with deep pockets

Wind Mobile, the struggling telecom startup that has been put up for sale by Netherlands-based owner Vimpelcom, is seeing a new burst of interest from potential investors.

CEO Tony Lacavera says anyone who steps forward 'a welcome event'

CEO Tony Lacavera talks about the struggle to compete against the Big 3 and why he’d welcome a new investor 6:06

Wind Mobile, the struggling telecom startup that has been put up for sale by Netherlands-based owner Vimpelcom, is seeing a new burst of interest from potential investors.

Quebecor, which is still hesitating about going whole hog into wireless outside Quebec is one name mentioned, along with Providence Capital and Blackstone, both private equity funds.

Wind CEO Tony Lacavera is very keen to cement that new relationship, with whoever eventually steps forward, because of a need for capital to build the business.

“A partnership with Quebecor or any new foreign investor, or even domestic investor — it doesn’t have to be Quebecor — any investor that has the view that we can make something significant long-term and benefit Canadian consumers and businesses I think is going to be a welcome event for Wind,” he said in an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange Friday.

Vimpelcom has been trying to sell its interest in Wind for several months and would not extend further investment in the startup so it could bid on new spectrum in January of this year, which meant Wind missed out in bidding on valuable new next-generation spectrum.

The Globe and Mail has mentioned $300 million as a price tag being dangled by Vimpelcom, which wrote down its investment in Wind earlier this year.

Indeterminate price tag

Lacavera won’t confirm that figure — he says any investor coming in will be buying into a solid, operating company.

“Whatever price Vimpelcom may want for the business that they invested in, that’s a separate discussion from the business of Wind. And I think if you are an investor coming in, you’re seeing a need for lot more capital, but you’re seeing a great growth platform,” he said.

Wind picked up subscribers and is facing less competition with the demise of one of the other new 2008 entrants to the telecom market, Public Mobile, Lacavera said. Mobilicity, also a new entrant, is in receivership but its sale to Telus has been blocked by the federal government.

“Wind at this point is a very solid growing concern, but we do need more capital. We have 750,000 subscribers, we’re growing on a very sold growth track. But it’s still an early stage company and it’s still a small company. So a lot more capital is needed to roll out the next generation of wireless services and continue to offer Canadians a truly independent choice in wireless which Wind represents today,” he said.

There was a suggestion last year that American giant Verizon might buy Wind, but that deal did not go through. Lacavera makes it clear that the controlling ownership structure is increasingly difficult to manage.

A 'big struggle' 

“The reality is, the controlling ownership structure at Wind has been a big, big struggle for us over the past two years. We’ve wrestled with it with a variety of different attempted transactions including Verizon. Many others we’ve attempted that failed. There was an attempt to buy my position out that failed – there has been a long of change around controlling ownership, but the positive around that is that both from an operational standpoint and from a policy standpoint at the government level, things are going in the right direction so that gives new investors coming in a positive picture and I look forward to concluding that transaction,” he said.

Quebecor, which won 700 Mhz spectrum outside Quebec for the first time in this spring’s auction, is still weighing whether it wants to invest in expansion across Canada.

However, in releasing its earnings Thursday, it again expressed interest in buying existing small carriers.

“Everything is on the table. … We continue to meet with several potential partners to assess their interest in partnering with us should we decide to consolidate the industry following positive regulatory developments,” Quebecor CEO Pierre Dion said.

But Quebecor is not likely to act until Ottawa sets new rules for roaming fees, which should happen after CRTC hearings at the end of September. Dion has demanded a “level playing field” on roaming fees, saying it is not ready to make major investments in infrastructure if it cannot get access to reasonable roaming fees across the country so it could offer consumers a low-cost wireless alternative.

Earlier this week, the CRTC reproached Rogers for its pricing on roaming rates to the new entrants. Lacavera welcomed that decision and the prospect of some sort of cap on roaming fees that might come through this fall.

“The roaming costing has been a big problem for us going back to inception and in 2008, we faced a lot of difficulty obtaining roaming that would make our network a national network. The big 3 operators — Bell, Telus and Rogers — had a 30-year headstart building their network and the government set out in 2008 to level the playing field, not so successfully,” he said.