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Report On Business Wind Mobile in ‘normal situation,’ poised to acquire spectrum: CEO

Pietro Cordova, CEO of Wind Mobile, is pictured at the Queen’s Quay store in Toronto in 2013.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

After five years in business, Wind Mobile Corp.'s chief executive officer says the backing of its new shareholders means the wireless carrier is finally in a "normal situation" where it can focus on investment and expansion rather than financial survival.

Pietro Cordova, who took over as CEO in October after two years as chief operating officer, says Wind is poised to acquire spectrum and upgrade its network to the next-generation technology that customers increasingly expect.

That wasn't the case before a group of investors bought out VimpelCom Ltd. in September, he says, noting that planning for long-term projects such as the rollout of an LTE (long-term evolution or fourth-generation) network was not possible under its former foreign owner.

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"I would say we are back to a normal situation where if you can show proper business planning and returns, capital is not going to be a scarce resource," Mr. Cordova said in an interview Tuesday, coinciding with the company's five-year anniversary since its commercial launch. "Capital is going to be a smart resource, because these guys are extremely careful in how they invest their money.

"But I think they have seen the potential of the company and are prepared to make sure it achieves results by purchasing new spectrum, deploying LTE and pursuing the real objective of becoming a contender in the Canadian market," he added.

Mr. Cordova said he expects Wind will surpass 800,000 subscribers at some point next week and noted, "We are EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization] positive now on a structural basis, which means the company can look after itself on its own."

Operating in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, Wind is Canada's fourth-largest wireless carrier, although it remains well behind the country's dominant three players led by Rogers Communications Inc. (with 9.5 million wireless customers) and followed by Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. (which each have close to eight million).

Wind said Tuesday that its network now includes more than 1,400 cellular transmission sites and the company has more than 300 retail stores and employs 1,800 people.

"At this point it looks like Wind, with its new investors, will be a fourth nearly-national player," Telus chief financial officer John Gossling said at an investor conference in New York last week.

"They don't have the ability to provide services in Quebec yet but they will be probably that fourth carrier that our government has been looking for," Mr. Gossling added, referencing the government's policy objective of having at least four cellular players in every market.

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Wind is evaluating its path to winning more spectrum, the airwaves used to build cellular networks that are necessary for its LTE expansion, and Mr. Cordova said that could include agreements with fellow new entrants such as Mobilicity or Quebecor Inc.'s Videotron Ltd.

Ottawa has prevented several of Telus's attempts to buy spectrum from Mobilicity, which has been under creditor protection for more than a year. Mr. Cordova said the government's stance on blocking transfers to incumbents helps make clear that those airwaves are only open to new players.

"We have many options [for spectrum] but they all fall into a few categories: You participate in an auction; you buy existing spectrum from people that are either under-utilizing it or not using it at all; or you partner up with people who have spectrum but maybe need Wind to pursue a different strategy," he said.

"What is different from a year ago is now we have all those options. ... we have a set of shareholders that, if they see a path to an efficient purchase, they have the funds and the will to go after that spectrum."

The recapitalization deal was structured so Wind founder Anthony Lacavera's holding company Globalive Capital first bought out VimpelCom's interest then applied to transfer ownership of its spectrum licences to a consortium of Canadian and American backers.

The federal government approved that transfer in November and the new investors include Globalive, Toronto hedge fund West Face Capital, California-based Tennenbaum Capital Partners and U.S. private equity player Lawrence Guffey, who is an adviser to Blackstone Group and a director on the T-Mobile U.S. Inc. board.

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The group paid VimpelCom $135-million and also assumed Wind's debt obligations, with sources indicating the total value of the deal was close to $300-million.

The consortium's holding company is now called Mid-Bowline Holdings Corp., which is an anagram chief regulatory officer Simon Lockie created from the letters in "Wind Mobile."

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