Business

Canada's big wireless companies spend nearly $9B on new 5G spectrum

The federal government raised $8.9 billion in a licence auction for a key band of 5G wireless spectrum in results announced after the close of markets Thursday.

Rogers spent more than anyone else on rights to use 3,500 MHz wireless spectrum

Demand for wireless data has skyrocketed in the pandemic. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

The federal government raised $8.9 billion in a licence auction for a key band of 5G wireless spectrum in results announced after the close of markets Thursday.

Canada's Big Three wireless companies led the pack, grabbing hundreds of licences for the 3,500-megahertz band of airwaves.

The 3,500 MHz band of spectrum will be important because carriers are using it as a building block for their 5G networks. More equipment for carriers and smartphone hardware is expected to work with that frequency band.

Midrange bands like 3,500 MHz are useful in both urban and rural areas because they have the ability to travel considerable distances and pass through buildings.

"The 3,500 MHz auction is a key step in our government's plan to promote competition in the telecom sector, improve rural connectivity and ensure Canadians benefit from 5G technologies and services," said François-Philippe Champagne, the minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, in a statement.

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"As intended, small and regional providers have gained access to significantly more spectrum, meaning that Canadians can expect better wireless services at more competitive prices, which has never been more important for working, online learning and staying connected with loved ones."

As well as Rogers, Bell and Telus, carriers gaining licences include Videotron, Xplornet and SaskTel.

Rogers won 325 licenses, the largest amount, paying a clock price of $3.3 billion that will allow them to provide service to 34 million people.

The company said its investment will allow it to reach 99.4 per cent of Canadians with 5G.

"This investment in 5G spectrum will build on our existing 5G assets and enable us to deliver the world-class connectivity Canada needs to increase productivity, fuel innovation, create jobs and compete in a global economy for decades to come," said Joe Natale, president and CEO of Rogers Communications, in a statement.

"We went into this auction with a clear plan and acquired the spectrum we need to continue driving the largest and most reliable 5G network in Canada and to deliver long-term value for our customers, shareholders and Canada."

The band of wireless spectrum auctioned off was the 3,500 MHz band, which is critical for 5G networks for moving large amounts of data quickly. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Videotron purchased 294 licenses, Bell received 271 and Telus won 142. Xplornet received 263 licenses.

Quebecor Inc., the parent company of Videotron, said its investments in the 5G auction were another step in its expansion outside of Quebec. It said more than half of the investments are concentrated in southern and eastern Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia.

"This major investment paves the way for large-scale projects in Quebec and other Canadian provinces in the coming years," said Pierre Karl Péladeau, president and CEO of Quebecor.

"Our success in Quebec has served Quebecers well. Today we are taking another step toward bringing leading-edge technology and healthy competition to more Canadian consumers."

Freedom Mobile, the country's fourth-largest cell service provider, chose not to participate in the auction amid a takeover deal of its parent company Shaw Communications Inc. by Rogers that is awaiting regulatory approval.

The United States held a similar auction last year, raising $4.5 billion US in net proceeds. Ottawa's $8.9 billion far outstrips the $3.5 billion raised in a 2019 spectrum auction for a different, less desirable wireless band.

In total, 1,495 out of 1,504 available licences were awarded to 15 Canadian companies, including 757 licences to small and regional providers across the country.

National and regional carriers collectively spend billions of dollars at auction to obtain licences for the spectrum they use for wireless service.

The 5G-compatible licences will allow more voice, video and data to be shared between smartphones or with other devices.

The auction was originally scheduled to take place last year but was delayed six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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