News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Canada's 'thirdworldish' policies to stifle wireless competition?

Naguib Sawiris: planning to shake up Canada's wireless market

DTW’s recent article on international ambitions of India’s two major state-owned telecoms operators mentioned that one opportunity they are considering is the acquisition of a controlling stake in Zamtel, the incumbent fixed-line operator in Zambia. It remains to be seen if this joint bid from BSNL and MTNL will succeed and it does look as though some formidable players are also interested.

According to a recent Cellular News article, other interested parties include Telecel Globe (a subsidiary of Orascom Telecom), Telkom (South Africa’s incumbent fixed-line operator) and Russia’s increasingly expansionist Vimpelcom, all of which, the article states, officially began due diligence this week.

Interest in Zamtel is by no means the biggest recent news item about Orascom Telecom and might well have escaped the notice of North American readers whose attention has probably been drawn more readily to the challenges the Egyptian firm is facing in Canada.

Globalive Communications Corp.
of Toronto was established in 1998, since which time it has offered competitive long distance plans. Ten years later, the company successfully made a purchase in Industry Canada's radio spectum auction, which paved the way for the creation of a challenger - Globalive Wireless - for the country's established mobile operators, including Telus Mobility, Rogers Wireless and Bell Mobility. The joint efforts of these three major carriers and regional players such as SaskTel have failed to drive national mobile penetration beyond 66.65% according to WCIS. This seems very low for a G8 country that ranks among the world's top ten trading nations. In an interview for Huawei's Communicate magazine earlier this year, Bell Mobility CTO Stephen Howe attributed this state of affairs to three factors: the relatively late licensing of digital wireless spectrum in Canada; Canada' s huge geographical area; the country's robust and unlimited-usage wireline networks.

Globalive Wireless, backed by Orascom Telecom and which had earlier this year announced its intention to launch services under the Wind brand familiar in Italy and Greece, has been led by CEO Ken Cambpell since October 2008. Cambell, whose former roles include a stint running the BITĖ Group, the Vodafone partner network in Lithuania and Latvia, would take issue with Stephen Howe's explanation for Canada's status as a wireless industry laggard. Speaking with Michael Bettiol of Boy Genius Report last month, Campbell lays the blame squarely with the country's wireless carriers:

"Here we’ve got a situation where we pay twice as much as they do in the US, our minutes of use are half of what they are in the US, and wireless penetration is at 65%. Clearly it is a market that is under-developed and where customers simply overpay. The other thing is that in Canada our customer saturation numbers are extremely low. We’ve got a very disenfranchised and very frustrated customer base that is really ripe and in need of competition. The other thing you should know is that this country is dominated by three carriers, but if you look regionally, it is typically two carriers that dominate regional markets. Canada is effectively an oligopoly and in many regions pretty much a duopoly. There is definitely an opportunity with consumers and the numbers speak for themselves."

If, as Michael Bettiol contests, Canadians have "long craved for a new wireless carrier to bust onto the scene and break up what is often described as the anti-competitive practices of [the] incumbents", there must surely be much excitement in the country about the market debut of Wind.

For now, however, any excitement must be deferred a while. Globalive Communications has been in a state of limbo since late last month, when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled that the company is effectively under the control of its Egyptian-based financial backer (Orascom Telecom) and is therefore in breach of rules on foreign ownership and control.

Terence Corcoran of the National Post despairs of the resulting "wireless mess":

"Globalive Wireless has just pumped more than half a billion dollars into the Canadian economy. That includes paying Ottawa $442-million last year for the right to new wireless spectrum, cash now already spent by the federal government stimulating road work in Saskatchewan and writing giant cheques to constituents in Nova Scotia," writes Corcoran, who also notes that "Globalive has also invested another hundred million or more preparing a new Canadian wireless network".

"Having taken Globalive's money", Corcoran continues, "Canada is now telling the company the deal is off."

Corcoran argues that the large spectrum auction fees collected by the Canadian Government would have been far more modest had the participation of Orascom Telecom supremo Naguib Sawiris not been authorised in the first place. Corcoran says that Sawiris has every right to feel mightily aggrieved:

"Whether or not it's possible to sue Ottawa over this thirdworldish policy switch and bureaucratic camel-trading, complete with secret meetings and rule-bending approval processes, it certainly looks like Globalive and its owner, Mr. Sawiris, have a case of some kind, politically and morally, if not legally. Ottawa led Globalive into bidding for spectrum and a major role in the Canadian wireless market, and then it pulled the carpet out from under the company.

This wrangle is a fascinating one for me. In the course of my work, I have spent considerable time networking with telecoms executives from Europe, North America and the Middle East who make their living running operations in less developed countries. I have lost count of the number of times I've heard (doubtless justified) complaints about the complexities and pitfalls of doing business in such markets - regulatory agencies that can be erratic and less than even-handed; taxation policies which stifle growth and innovation; foreign ownership rules which can prove limiting. It is with interest, then, that I read of a company rooted in Egypt encountering in Canada some of the problems I usually hear attributed to much less affluent and developed societies.


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