Rogers-Shaw merger would be a major blow to competition within Canada: Professor
There may be little – very little – that Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau agree on, but their belief in the value of a so-called fourth competitor in Canadian wireless markets is indeed common ground.
Harper’s Conservative government tried doggedly to support wireless players not named Bell Canada, Telus or Rogers during its nearly nine years in power. More competition, the Harper Conservatives believed, would mean downward pressure on cellular pricing. The Trudeau Liberals grabbed the baton in 2015 and have advocated loudly for more competition in wireless markets. The federal Liberals, like the Harper Conservatives before them, have repeatedly said Canadians’ cell phone bills are too high.
And yet here we are. Another fourth player may be fated to vanish.
Rogers Communications Inc.’s plan to take over Shaw Communications Inc. – as it currently stands – will see Canada’s fourth-biggest wireless player swallowed up by a giant incumbent. Specifically, that’s Shaw-owned Freedom Mobile and Shaw Mobile and their roughly 1.9 million customers in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
If it happens, it will follow the takeovers of other upstarts like Public Mobile (purchased by Telus Corp. in 2013) and Mobilicity (acquired by Rogers in 2015).
The deal will require approval from the Competition Bureau; the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development; and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). It’s expected to take at least a year for each regulator to issue a ruling.
The scrutiny that the deal will face over the next year will surely take direct aim at a simple question: Should Rogers be forced to divest some or all of Shaw’s wireless business.
Consumer groups, the New Democratic Party (which wants the entire transaction blocked) and others will implore the government that the answer to this is an emphatic “yes.”
They’ll cite evidence that Freedom often led wireless prices lower in its markets, and that allowing Rogers to swallow Freedom will help all three of the big incumbents – not just Rogers – resist pressures to cut prices.
Bay Street analysts do not contest either assertion. For instance, Canaccord Genuity’s Aravinda Galappatthige recently told clients “Shaw’s wireless brands have largely been considered instigators of price competition over the last five years.”
Tim Casey at BMO Capital Markets wrote, “we think consolidation in the sector would be a net positive for the sector.” Similarly, Jerome Dubreuil, an analyst at Desjardins Securities, told clients he expected “more wireless pricing discipline in the market” if the takeover is approved as proposed. “Discipline” means less temptation to cut prices to win market share.
Moreover, Ottawa will be staring at the competitive implications in three of Canada’s most populous provinces. BMO’s Casey has estimated Rogers, for instance, would control 50 per cent of the wireless market in Ontario if it were allowed to buy Shaw’s wireless assets.
So an order from Ottawa that Rogers must sell some or all of Shaw’s wireless assets seems possible. And if so, there would likely be several interested buyers.
Analysts say regional wireless players like Quebecor Inc. and Halifax-based Eastlink Inc. might be keen to expand their geographic scope. Xplornet Communications Inc., a provider of wireless high-speed internet service in rural markets across Canada, might be interested and could attract investors to join it. Cogeco Inc., which recently rebuffed a takeover attempt by Rogers and Altice USA Inc., might decide it’s time to get into the wireless business. Foreign telco companies would be eligible buyers (restrictions on non-Canadian ownership of domestic telco service providers do not apply to companies with less than 10 percent market share) and private equity has shown recent interest in telco investments, according to analysts.
But regulators will have to think carefully about whether sticking doggedly to the fourth-competitor strategy is still appropriate in 2021.
As the incumbents always do, Rogers will argue now is not the time to hold back big players that can spend billions of dollars on leading edge telecommunications networks. Rogers is promising to do just that if it buys Shaw, with $2.5 billion pledged to the build-out of a new 5G wireless network in western Canada. Bell has also launched an historic spending campaign, aiming to spend between $1 billion and $1.2 billion over the next two years on expanding its broadband fibre and wireless networks.
There will be voices in the federal government arguing now is the time to let the incumbents do what they do best: invest billions of dollars into advanced infrastructure.
Rogers is also promising big spending on rectifying what has become a national embarrassment: the meager availability of high-speed internet in rural and Indigenous communities across Canada.
“Fewer than half of rural Canadians, and about one-third of First Nations communities, have access to high-speed internet,” wrote BMO’s Casey in a recent report.
To help rectify that, Rogers is promising a $1-billion Rural and Indigenous Connectivity Fund. It is also promising to consult with Indigenous communities and create Indigenous-owned and operated internet service providers.
That fund would be larger than a $750-million broadband fund operated by the CRTC, notes Cartt.ca, a news service devoted to covering the sector.
Rogers may argue it needs the Shaw wireless assets – the fastest-growing, most profitable part of any telco’s operations – to fund promises like that.
On the day the deal was announced, Rogers CEO Joe Natale said he was confident the deal will eventually get approved.
But, pressed by analysts to predict what the regulators may want, he was equally confident on another point.
“It will come down to discussions on the wireless business,” he said.