Rogers buys no new spectrum as AWS-3 wireless auction raises $2.1B

The federal government unveils results of the latest spectrum auction, which saw many cellular service carriers bid for chunks of Canada's digital airwaves but didn't include one of the biggest, as Rogers didn't buy.

Ottawa tailors sell-off of digital airwaves to favour new entrants outside the 'Big 3'

The winners of Ottawa's auction of AWS-3 wireless spectrum have been revealed. (Associated Press)

The federal government unveiled results of the latest spectrum auction, which saw many cellular service carriers bid for chunks of Canada's digital airwaves but didn't include one of the biggest, as Rogers didn't buy.

Industry Minister James Moore announced the results at 8:30 a.m. ET today in Toronto.

Earlier this week, 10 companies were on a list of qualified bidders vying for the right to use blocks of wireless spectrum — the wireless infrastructure over which cellular networks transmit voice and data to customers.

As it turned out, only five companies picked up new spectrum.

Ottawa raised more than $2.1 billion in the auction, which saw many companies increase their capacity to transmit voice and data over their wireless networks. The auction was tailored in favour of smaller players, and that seemed to have an impact on who bought how much and where. Wind Mobile picked up new blocks in Alberta, Ontario and B.C. for the minimum bid price of $56 million, increasing its spectrum allocation by 180 per cent in the process.

Eastlink expanded by 77 per cent in its home base of Atlantic Canada, while Videotron did the same, expanding its reach by 65 per cent in Ontario and Quebec.

Mobilicity, another small wireless company that has been in financial trouble in recent years, didn't buy any new spectrum, pulling out at the last minute after it was unable to secure financing.

Telus and Bell also picked up new spectrum, expanding their stakes by 16 and four per cent respectively. 

No new spectrum for Rogers

Rogers, one of Canada's three biggest wireless carriers, didn't buy any. 

"We won the beachfront property we wanted last year," in a previous auction of 700-MHz spectrum, Rogers spokeswoman Patricia Trott told CBC News. "Some AWS-3 spectrum would have been nice to have when it's usable in a few years, but we're comfortable we can continue to meet our customers' need for speed and capacity now and in the future."

The company did not immediately reply to a follow-up question from CBC News as to whether the company declined to participate in the auction, or was simply outbid.

At least one analyst agreed that Rogers not buying any new spectrum perhaps isn't all that surprising.

"While this comes as a surprise, given Rogers' rich spectrum position post the 700 MHz auction in 2014 and relatively high debt leverage, perhaps it is understandable," Canaccord analyst Dvai Ghose said in a note to clients.

"We believe that the wireless incumbents remain in good shape despite government policies," he said, adding that he doesn't expect the spectrum to have any immediate impact on Canadians wireless bills, or wireless service, since it is unlikely to be rolled out within two or three years anyway.

Indeed, no Canadian cellphones currently work on the AWS-3 band, so no consumer will see any improvement on their service until they have a device that works on that wavelength, and can connect to a network that transmits it.

A bargain for Wind

Nonetheless, Wind is considered to have won a bargain price after it had no competition in its bid for spectrum after Mobilicity pulled out. New entrants were given preferred access to blocks of spectrum.

"This spectrum is long needed for us to roll out 4G or LTE services, the next generation of wireless services, to meet the incredible growth in demand of mobile internet," said Wind chair Anthony Lacavera in an interview with The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Lacavera said Wind has already invested $1 billion in its networks in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario and will need to invest several hundred million more to roll out enhanced service.

But the recent ownership changes at Wind give it a freer hand, both in raising money and making new investments, he said.

"We’re able to actually talk to debt and equity investors from a position of strength," he said.