Shaw Communications Inc. and Quebecor’s Videotron Ltd. discussed a potential network sharing agreement before Shaw struck a deal in March to be acquired by Rogers Communications Inc. , according to court documents.
The negotiations between Western Canadian cable company Shaw and Montreal-based Videotron are disclosed in documents filed with the Federal Court as part of the Competition Bureau’s review of the merger between Rogers and Shaw, which is valued at $26-billion including debt.
In a June 22 e-mail to Videotron’s external counsel, a competition law officer at the Bureau asked whether the telecom “would have concerns with the Bureau referring to the fact that negotiations took place between Videotron and Shaw prior to the proposed transaction regarding a potential network sharing agreement” as part of the basis for some of its information requests. No further details about the network sharing discussions are provided in the 495-page document.
Chethan Lakshman, Shaw’s vice-president of external affairs, called the negotiations “highly exploratory discussions that didn’t advance.” Quebecor did not respond to a request for comment.
The Bureau is examining whether the deal between Rogers and Shaw is likely to result in a substantial lessening of competition. Some analysts have predicted Rogers will have to sell off Shaw’s wireless business, which includes the Freedom Mobile and Shaw Mobile brands, in order to appease regulators. Freedom Mobile is the fourth-largest wireless carrier in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, and has been credited with driving price competition in recent years.
Pierre Karl Péladeau, president and chief executive of Quebecor, has argued the merger would result in higher prices for consumers unless Shaw’s wireless business is excluded. Mr. Péladeau told members of Parliament in March that Quebecor has the expertise and financial means to become a national wireless player, hinting his company would be interested in snapping up Freedom if it were for sale.
Videotron entered into a 20-year network sharing agreement with Rogers in 2013 in Quebec and the Ottawa region. The two companies agreed to pool their resources in order to more quickly build out a shared LTE network. (LTE stands for long-term evolution and refers to the fourth generation of wireless technology). Bell and Telus also share wireless networks, with each one responsible for roughly half the country.
Rogers and Shaw have said combining forces would allow them to more quickly roll out fifth-generation wireless technology, which is expected to power everything from smart manufacturing to driverless cars. The results of a federal auction for 3,500 MHz spectrum – airwaves deemed critical for 5G – will play a major role in Videotron’s ability to expand outside its home province. Those results are expected to be announced later this week.
The competition watchdog has asked the Federal Court to compel BCE Inc., Telus Corp., Quebecor and Xplornet Communications Inc. to produce records and information relating to competitive dynamics in the Canadian wireless market since 2017. The Bureau is seeking information on telecoms’ market shares, marketing and pricing strategies, planned investments into 5G wireless networks and, in the case of the smaller carriers, their expansion plans as well as any barriers they face.
The Bureau is also asking the companies to provide their own assessments of how the proposed acquisition would impact the competitive dynamics between wireless carriers.
In addition to the Bureau, two other regulators are reviewing the proposed merger. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is examining the transfer of broadcasting licences, while Innovation, Science and Economic Development is reviewing the transfer of licences for airwaves used to transmit wireless signals.
Rogers CEO Joe Natale told The Globe and Mail last week he’s confident the acquisition will get approved. He expects the deal to close in the first half of 2022.
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