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The Rogers sign is seen atop the Rogers Communications Inc. headquarters in Toronto.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Rogers Communications Inc. is looking to strike it big in the oil patch, with a $700-million investment that will see its cellphone network extended to the far reaches of Alberta.

Albertans spend more on voice and data plans than subscribers in any other part of the country, making the province a key battleground as Canada's established cellphone companies try to find new customers in a highly competitive market.

"We're actually reaching right into the oil fields themselves and making sure a lot of things that go on in major cities and the high speed of connectivity is available in a lot of these locations," said Rob Bruce, president of communications at Rogers. "Life as a wireless carrier is about pushing your network out as far as the population goes and beyond."

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The average revenue per user in Alberta is $75.26 a month for voice and data services, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, well above the national average of $57.94 (the province also has the highest household income). Getting that extra money out of subscribers is harder than ever for the cellphone companies, who are seeing slower growth now that the majority of the users have made the transition to smartphones.

The country's big three cellphone providers have been scrambling to upgrade their services as the federal government pushes forward with its policies to ensure there is a stable fourth player to compete with them in every region of the country.

Their efforts intensified over the summer as the telecom regulator vowed to take a deeper look at roaming rates to see how they affect competition.

The CRTC undertook that study after introducing measures to cap extra fees, such as those for international roaming, as part of a wireless code that is set to take effect in early December.

With fewer new subscribers looking for their first phone, the companies are aggressively targeting their rivals by expanding their networks, cutting their roaming plans and offering rich incentives for switching.

Rogers said Tuesday the money would be spent to upgrade its wireless network across the province, add 50 more stores to bring its total to 150 (Telus has more than 200, while Bell will have 150 by the end of the year), and sponsor the National Hockey League's Edmonton Oilers.

The deal with the hockey team will see Rogers become the team's "lead sponsor," and it will also include the WHL Oil Kings and Rexall Place (one initiative will see the company hand out Oilers car flags to anyone visiting a Rogers store).

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While Rogers is the largest wireless carrier in the country, the CRTC estimates that Telus Corp. commanded a 50-per-cent share of the Alberta market at the end of 2012, with Rogers and Bell equally sharing the bulk of the remaining subscribers (only 4 per cent of subscribers weren't with one of the major carriers).

While Rogers is investing its $700-million in four years, Telus will spend that much this year alone (although its spending also includes the infrastructure needed to expand its IPTV television service). It says its network reaches 99 per cent of Alberta's population, which is where Rogers hopes to be at the end of its four-year investment.

This week Telus also launched a new "push to talk" service that essentially turns smartphones into walkie-talkies.

"We anticipate it will be very popular in the oil patch," spokesman Chris Gerritsen said.

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