Wind Mobile will need more money to progress to next level, analyst says

Wind says it wants to invest in additional spectrum to expand its wireless network

TORONTO – Buying out Wind Mobile’s European-based majority owner is only the first step and more financing will be needed if the small wireless carrier is to progress to the next level by improving its network and attracting significantly more customers, telecom industry analyst Mark Goldberg said Tuesday.

“It takes money to acquire customers,” Goldberg said after Wind announced its founder had lined up financial backers to buy out the company’s majority partner, VimpelCom, in a deal worth about $300 million

Wind has been doing “pretty well” in acquiring new customers and an “outstanding job” in getting regulatory and legal changes that improve the operating conditions it faces, Goldberg said.

“So now it’s a matter of the marketing team continuing along those lines, going into what is about to be the busiest sales season of the year for carriers,” Goldberg said, referring to the Christmas holiday period. “This is when the wireless industry has its most important sales and efforts.”

Goldberg said Canadian wireless carriers typically spend $200 to $250 per additional subscriber to pay for advertising and marketing, customer support and to subsidize the cost of the customers’ devices.

Tony Lacavera, Wind chairman and CEO and minority owner of its parent Globalive, said in an interview Tuesday that the private equity firms that are backing the proposed buyout of VimpelCom haven’t made specific commitments for future financing. But he said the participation of such sophisticated investors is a “validation” of Wind.

If Wind continues to acquire subscribers at the current pace, build out its network and improve service “that will obviously give investors confidence to continue to finance the company,” Lacavera said.

He said that the company’s priority — if the deal to buy out VimpelCom gets the required government approvals — is to buy wireless spectrum either from other carriers or in the federal auctions of cellular airwaves early next year.

In the long term Wind has to roll out an LTE wireless network, an expensive process that’s already well-advanced at Canada’s three biggest wireless carriers and to do that Wind will require additional spectrum — the radio frequencies that carry voice, video and data traffic.

“Shaw’s got some spectrum out West. Videotron has some spectrum in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta. And Mobilicity has some spectrum,” Lacavera said. “So there’s three parties that are holding spectrum that we could potentially do a deal with.”

“But there are also two upcoming auctions as well,” he added. “So one of these sources is going to have to work out for us and we’re going to assess all of it.”

Goldberg said that in next year’s AWS-3 auction, if Wind participates, it would be the only qualified bidder for some of the spectrum set aside for new entrants — meaning it won’t have to pay more than their opening bid to acquire licences in some areas.

Lacavera, who owns about 35 per cent of Wind Mobile through Globalive, has been attempting to position it as a significant competitor to Canada’s three biggest carriers, which collectively have about 90 per cent of the total subscriber base.

Wind currently has garnered about 750,000 customers, or less than 10 per cent of any of the Big Three: Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Telus (TSX:T) and BCE’s Bell (TSX:BCE), since it entered the wireless market in 2009.

Lacavera says that Wind offers customers more clarity on the cost of service, since it offers unlimited data plans that avoid overage fees. It also allows customers to hook up their own phones or devices to its network, or buy them through Wind.

“You know, we’re not the fastest. We’re not the cheapest. We’re none of those things. We’re good value for your money and I think we deliver a good, solid customer experience,” Lacavera said.

The new investment group includes West Face Capital, a Toronto-based private equity firm. Other financial partners include Tannenbaum Capital Partners, LG Capital Investors, Serruya Private Equity and Novus Wireless Communications.

Though Wind hasn’t faced the same type of financial problems that pushed other small carriers Mobilicity and Public Mobile into court-supervised protection, it has had difficulty raising funds for capital investments that could speed its growth by allowing it to expand and improve its own network.

Its network is concentrated in populated areas of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia but requires access to one of the Big three’s national networks or partnerships with other small carriers, and likely will for some time to come.

Barclays telecom analyst Phillip Huang said that a revitalized Wind reduces the chance that Quebecor’s Videotron (TSX:QBR.B) will take the financial risk of expanding beyond its home province of Quebec at this time and take some of the competitive pressure off the three biggest players.

“From a regulatory perspective, it would satisfy the government’s goal to sustain four facilities-based wireless players in each of the major markets (at least through the next federal election in October 2015), potentially lowering the urgency to adopt more disruptive policies.”

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