Canada's mobile landscape flattens as Wind Mobile moves from upstart to incumbent

After a brief three-month review period, Canada's Wind Mobile is now fully owned by Shaw, according to a press release issued by the Calgary-based company this week.

Wind Mobile, which has 940,000 subscribers in three Canadian provinces, is considered the country's fourth national carrier after Bell, Rogers and Telus. The carrier emerged after the government's AWS-1 spectrum auction in 2008, and has endured a rough ride, struggling to compete against the so-called Big Three, which already possessed considerable infrastructure and user bases when Wind launched in 2009. Other national new entrants from that time, Mobilicity and Public Mobile, were purchased by Rogers and Telus in 2015 and 2013, respectively.

Until the $1.6 billion acquisition, Shaw Communications was one of the few telecommunications companies in Canada with no wireless entity, though it does operate a large network of high-speed Wi-Fi hotspots in medium-sized cities like Calgary and Edmonton. Shaw will now oversee Wind Mobile's transition from an HSPA+ 3G network to a more modern LTE one, taking advantage of 50Mhz of AWS-3 spectrum the company acquired in a spectrum auction last March.

What's unclear is whether Wind Mobile will, once LTE launches, maintain its balanced approach of moderately-priced monthly plans and generous handset financing options. It's also unclear whether Shaw will maintain the Wind branding for all demographics, or launch a separate, higher-priced brand under the Shaw Mobile name to compete with Rogers, Bell, and Telus in the high-ARPU stream. While Wind Mobile's average revenue per user (ARPU) has risen steadily over the past few years, it is still around $15 less than the incumbents', which have all benefited from increased LTE data consumption.

Shaw will also have to wait until devices compatible with AWS-3 spectrum launch later in 2016. The standard was only recently ratified by the 3GGP, a standards body responsible for GSM band licensing plans, as Band 66. In the meantime, Shaw says, "We are better positioned to deliver better value and capability to WIND customers. The strength of Shaw as a company and as a brand will provide Canadians with more choice and opportunities to stay connected."

Besides its lack of LTE, Wind Mobile has struggled against the Big Three for another reason: it does not have a deal with Apple to sell the iPhone. In fact, when Wind decided to work with smartphone distributor Ingram Micro to sell refurbished iPhone 5s models in 2015, Apple Canada sent a request for cessation. With the brand under Shaw's considerably more cash-rich umbrella, and the impending launch of an LTE network in 2016, it's all but certain this will be the year the iPhone comes to Wind.

Daniel Bader

Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.