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With spectrum, Rogers rolls the dice on mobile video

Rogers Communications Inc. certainly has its gambling mojo back. It has now made massive (and related) bets on content and capacity that just might someday pay off. But Rogers is paying an awful lot, maybe too much, to find out.

The Toronto-based broadcast, cable and wireless-communications company went huge in the federal government's wireless spectrum auction, whose results were unveiled late Wednesday. Indeed, Rogers' purchase is much bigger than those of its two large competitors, BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. The auction, in which Ottawa is selling 20-year rights to the radio waves on which wireless data are carried, raised $5.3-billion – more than double what many industry analysts had predicted – and Rogers accounted for most of that. Its massive $3.3-billion commitment was more than triple what Bay Street analysts had expected. It was also triple the total of the next-biggest bidder, Telus.

It's the second time in less than three months that Rogers has wowed/stunned observers with a multibillion-dollar investment that points the company in a direction that is certainly aggressive, and risky. In late November, the company signed a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal with the National Hockey League for the broadcast rights to all games on all platforms in Canada. For fans of the company's bold old days under its maverick founder, Ted Rogers, this must be heartening: A restoration of the company's tradition of taking some risks in search of big rewards.

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On the other hand, that's $8.5-billion, and a lot of years, that the company has tied up. The strategy might work, but the price tag for both deals looks awfully steep. Rogers almost certainly overpaid on both fronts, in the name of locking down a long-term strategy and locking out its main competitors. Now it will have to make it all work, in largely untested waters.

These two investments are the key components in a strategy that will link Rogers' businesses in a way they have never been linked before. Rogers is looking to a future world where consumers will watch whatever they want, wherever they want, on whatever device they want – and the company wants to be the one to provide it. Its NHL rights acquisition gave it a marquee content property with which it can roll out this strategy. With the spectrum auction, now it's buying the tools to deliver the product, coast to coast.

This particular spectrum auction featured a high-quality wavelength that is good at carrying large amounts of information quickly – in other words, exactly what you need for ramping up wireless video. Indeed, Rogers went to great lengths and considerable expense to secure access to two contiguous swaths of spectrum in every key market in the country, which are considered critical to deliver high-capacity mobile data such as video. A few years from now, technology will probably advance such that carriers don't actually need side-by side spectrum, but for the time being, it's absolutely necessary to create the kind of broad, multi-platform, fully mobile world for video content that Rogers has in mind.

Did Rogers pay too much for something that may be superfluous within a few years? Quite possibly. But this could give Rogers a head start on its competition – a chance to leapfrog over BCE and Telus in the race for the next generation of mobile communications and, maybe, restore it to a dominance in the Canadian wireless market that it hasn't had since BCE and Telus joined forces on a shared national network five years ago.

However, what if Rogers has misjudged consumer appetite, the revenue potential, the value of these assets? What if this doesn't give it a meaningful leg up on its competition? This wouldn't be the first time a communications and media company misjudged the potential for marrying technology with content, and tied itself in knots for years in the process.

Rogers' management deserves credit – they're crafting the beginnings of a bold new story for their business here. The question is whether, by the time it's finished years from now, they have written a success story or a cautionary tale.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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