VimpelCom Ltd. is keeping its "options open" when it comes to Canada's wireless market because it has yet to clinch regulatory approval for its formal takeover of Wind Mobile.
Although it has been nearly a year since the federal government enacted changes to allow full foreign ownership of small telecoms, Amsterdam-based VimpelCom is still waiting for the green light from Canadian regulators on a pair of deals that would solidify its control of the Toronto-based mobile carrier.
VimpelCom's Cairo-based subsidiary, Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, is trying to gain majority control by converting its big block of non-voting shares into voting shares, while also pursuing a buyout of shares owned by Wind's chief executive officer Anthony Lacavera. But the Canadian regulatory approval process has dragged on for months, raising questions about Wind's long-term future in this country.
"That approval is not yet given. For that reason, that's the focus right now," said VimpelCom's chief executive officer Jo Olav Lunder during a conference call to discuss the company's first-quarter earnings on Wednesday.
"And when we have it, we will conclude whether we do an organic growth play or whether we merge with, try to merge with some of the regional players or whether we simply dispose [of] the asset. And we keep our options open in Canada."
Delays in the approval process are also fuelling doubts about whether Wind will bid in a pivotal auction of wireless spectrum later this year. The deadline to sign up is June 11.
Orascom is said to have submitted its share-conversion proposal last November for what was expected to be a four-to-six-week approval process. But sources have said that Industry Minister Christian Paradis is reluctant to give his blessing until Ottawa has assurances about Wind's future owner.
"Even though VimpelCom has yet to receive regulatory approval to buy control of Wind Mobile Canada from Anthony Lacavera, the market assumes that VimpelCom wants to sell its position in Wind Mobile Canada," Dvai Ghose, a telecom analyst at Canaccord Genuity, wrote in a research note to clients.
"We assume that all three independent new entrants, Wind, Mobilicity and Public Mobile, are waiting for Industry Canada to finish its review of spectrum transfers, as the most obvious alternative is to sell to an incumbent, if allowed by Industry Canada. However, it is unclear what will happen if the government does not allow new entrant spectrum sales to incumbents."
Since Ottawa is grappling with a "potentially 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' scenario," Mr. Ghose said, the government "may have to delay the auction in order to give new entrants time to address their future options."
Potential bidders for Wind include incumbents such as Rogers Communications Inc., rival new entrant carriers and private-equity firm Catalyst Capital Group Inc. Egyptian telecom magnate Naguib Sawiris, Wind's original financial backer, is also said to be partnering with Mr. Lacavera on an offer.
Wind, meanwhile, increased its subscriber base during the first quarter of this year, but the pace of that growth appears to have slowed since the end of 2012.
The carrier, which is operated by Globalive Wireless Management Corp., added 11,281 subscribers during the three months ended March 31, 2013, which increased its "active subscriber base" to 601,719, Orascom said in its release. Its average revenue per user (ARPU), which is a key metric that reflects the average consumer bill, amounted to $27.60, according to Orascom.
Still, Orascom's figures for Wind appeared to be inconsistent with those provided by VimpelCom on Wednesday. It reported that Wind had 602,000 customers and ARPU of $31.60 for the first quarter. Both Orascom and VimpelCom stated those figures in Canadian dollars.
A spokeswoman for Wind Mobile said the ARPU variances were caused by different reporting methods used by Orascom and VimpelCom, noting the carrier has consistently used the Orascom method in the past.