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WIND Mobile on 2015 spectrum auction: It would be really hard to mess this up

This week, WIND Mobile is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its Canadian launch. The company is officially the nation’s fourth largest carrier with more than 800,000 active subscribers (as of this month) and over 1,400 network sites. To celebrate its first five years in Canada, we sat down with newly appointed CEO Pietro Cordova to talk about where the company is going, where it’s been, and why the carrier still doesn’t have the iPhone.

Spectrum

A large majority of our talk with Cordova was, rather predictably, about the AWS-3 spectrum auction, which is scheduled for early next year. Former CEO Anthony Lacavera has been vocal about WIND acquiring more spectrum; it’s the only way for WIND to achieve the growth it needs to compete as the nation’s fourth player.

At this year’s 700Mhz auction, WIND failed to secure any additional spectrum. Prior to the interview, we at MobileSyrup talked about how WIND could possibly screw up the AWS auction next year. Daniel said they could really only blow it if they didn’t have the necessary capital. I told Cordova about that conversation when I met him a bit later in the morning. That we had basically arrived at the conclusion: “To f**k this up, WIND Mobile would need to not have the money.” (Sorry for the swearing, but that’s a direct quote from the taped interview.) Cordova agreed that it would be hard to mess up now that they have the funds in place to get what they have wanted for so long.

Pietro: “The money is already in the company and I’m not gonna send it back. We would have collectively to come up to the office one day and say, ‘Lets think of a way of f**king this up.’ It has to be an evil plan.”

Jane: “Haha, like it would need to be an effort?”

Pietro: “Haha, yeah an effort!”

As funny as that quote is, Pietro gets more serious immediately after. In his mind, WIND finally has the means to achieve what it wanted a year ago. He recognizes that the company’s path will not be easy, but it is right there in front of them, and he is confident that the company can deliver.

“I’m not saying its going to be an easy ride. But the path is clear. It’s up to us to deliver. But if we keep putting in the effort, with the quality of people we have here but I am very confident that this company will be successful.”

Strategy

Cordova was just named CEO at the end of October, but he’s been at WIND for almost a decade. He spent the last two years in the role of COO of WIND Mobile here in Canada, working alongside former CEO and current chairman Anthony Lacavera. Before that, from 2005 to 2012, he was Deputy CFO of WIND Telecomunicazioni S.p.A., aka WIND Italy. It’s all of this time at the company that has him so confident about the future of WIND Mobile in Canada. He knows money, and he has spent two years working alongside Lacavera, helping to make the decisions about where WIND Mobile is going as a company. When I asked about how his strategy differs from Lacavera’s, Cordova told me very simply that it didn’t.

“If you look at what the company was doing, I don’t think there’s a need to change any strategy,” he explained. “We were doing the right things before, we’re doing the right things now.”

He also has the added benefit of Lacavera still being around. This isn’t a case of out with the old and in with the new. Cordova says that if he wants to, he can sit down with Tony and bounce ideas off of him. And it’s not just the former CEO that is on hand to offer perspective.

“I have a number of very super qualified counterparts that are willing to challenge what I say, which is what it should be,” he said. “I would say that in the past 2.5 years I have been extremely active in a lot of the things that happened within the company. […] Most of the vision is my vision.”

So, his strategy is the same, but something has to be different, right? WIND has struggled, and now Cordova is so confident that the company will be successful. You see, Cordova is not the most significant personnel change within WIND. No, according to Cordova, what’s different now is the shareholders.

“We have actually added shareholders that are very interested in the company, which is a fantastic change for us,” he explained, clarifying that previously shareholders were interested in the company for different reasons.

“I can shoot an email to my shareholders and say you know what, I think we should do this and they can actually reply and say ‘yeah,’ or ‘no.’ They have an interest.” Earlier in our conversation he described these new shareholders as ‘disciplined’ with ‘rational expectations’ about the company’s profitability and growth. He also referred to them as “Dad” when talking about the company’s finances. As in, ‘Dad has already given us the money, so it’s up to us to spend it wisely.’ (There was also a joke about getting thrown in a lake if they don’t do that.) It’s abundantly clear that WIND Mobile finally has the support it needs, and Cordova seems so grateful for that. He talked about it constantly throughout our 20-minute chat.

Here’s to the crazy ones? Fine, but don’t call us crazy!

We know that the strategy is the same. And we know that WIND can afford the spectrum necessary to execute that strategy. But what is WIND Mobile’s strategy from a consumer standpoint?

According to Cordova, it’s not to be crazy. When we asked about the parallels people draw between T-Mobile in the U.S., a self-designated ‘uncarrier,’ and WIND Mobile, Cordova said, Yeah, if you wanted him to pick one carrier that he could relate to, it would probably be T-Mobile. They come from the same place (minus the shareholders with commitment issues, of course).

“On a relative basis, probably if I had to pick one of the American carriers that I could refer to or relate to, it would be probably T-Mo,” Cordova admitted. “Because they come from the same constraints in terms of having AWS-1 instead of other frequencies, because they come from behind. Clearly they’ve had a different run because of Deutsche Telecom was way more committed to them than our previous shareholders, just to be very clear,” he says, laughing and adding, “They had deeper pockets.”

However, he also said that it is a more general comparison in the way they conduct themselves. T-Mobile, he says, is not about disruption. They just come out with new ideas, which he believes is key to how WIND conducts itself in Canada.

“We came with no contract, we came with no hidden fees, we came with the unlimited U.S. add-on. Are they disruptive? Are they like, Oh my God? No, they’re not, but I think they’re a different way of doing business in Canada. I think this is what WIND is about. We want to bring you guys the new ideas.”

“We are not the crazy guys in the market,” he said in an earlier part of our talk. “We bring innovation, we bring new ideas, we bring a new approach to doing things, but we are not the insane guys that suddenly show up with twelve and a half dollar plans, just to mention something,” he said impishly, referring to Mobilicity.

Quebec

Earlier this year, Quebec-based Videotron revealed that it was engaged in ongoing talks with WIND Mobile about roaming agreements outside of Quebec. Cordova said that yes, WIND has talked to Videotron, but “that’s commercial, and we talk to everyone in that sense.” So they’re not talking to Videotron about a quid-pro-quo agreement?  Well, WIND could have those kinds of conversations with anyone, really.

“You could have a stronger tie with someone commercially, so if we feel that it is a particularly good fit, maybe we can give them preferential rates on our network and they give us preferential rates on their network,” he responded. “But it’s not a question, to use your words ‘scratching each others’ backs.’ It’s just that if you find a better fit, you use it, but at the end of the day I could do that with Eastlink and we have a great relationship with them and we talk to MTS as well.”

Interestingly, when it comes to being a truly national carrier, WIND doesn’t think it needs Quebec.

Jane: “So, the spectrum auction is one thing. but even if everything goes well there, Quebec is going to be one of those places that’s like the final frontier. If you guys want to be truly national you need to get to Quebec.”

Again he shakes his head. Does he disagree? Apparently, yes.

Pietro: “Not at all.”

Jane: “You’re saying you could be a national carrier without Quebec?”

Pietro: “Yeah, ‘national’ is kind of a misconcept because quite frankly, we are operating in three provinces, right? The rest we cover through the roaming agreements. But we don’t sell there, we don’t have commercial outposts there.

“So, we just want to make sure when our customers turn their phone on Manitoba or in PEI then they have the freedom of using their phone as much as they have the freedom of using their phone in Toronto or Calgary or Vancouver. That’s what we want to do. We’re not planning to open stores in Quebec.”

Cordova’s reasoning for ‘not needing’ Quebec is explained by the WIND Away concept. If customers’ phones work all over the country and the company can offer good roaming rates, they don’t need to have a presence in every provence. Cordova just doesn’t even see much point in trying. Those markets already have their fourth players, he claims. They don’t need a fifth.

“If you look at the map of Canada, and you relate to the words of Minister Moore about the fourth carrier, in each single province you already have a fourth carrier because we are in the three provinces and then you have MTS and then Sasktel and then Eastlink and Quebecor so every single province has a fourth operator. So anywhere I want to go, I would be the fifth, not the fourth, and why would I want to do that? Why would anyone want to do that?”

iPhone and BlackBerry

We already reported that the BlackBerry Classic will be available on WIND next year, but one major hole in WIND’s device portfolio is the iPhone. That doesn’t worry the company’s CEO, though. Yes, people are buying them now in the Apple Store or in the U.S. and sticking a WIND SIM card in there, but how many? North of 40,000 WIND subscribers, according to the company’s CEO.

But Cordova explains that the company has plenty of other fantastic devices, so while he might think that his network is “perfect” for iPhones, he’s not hurting over the lack of Apple devices in his stores.

“Other than the iPhone we have all the other lineups. We have the S5, we have the BlackBerrys, we have the LGs. Anything else we have. So it would be a good addition to us. Are we missing the iPhone? Yes. Is that making a huge difference to our sales? I don’t think so. We have the right plans for an iPhone user,” he said, referencing unlimited data and adding, “We are the perfect carrier for the iPhone user.”

When pressed about future plans to carrier the iPhone, Cordova said:

“I always wanted to carry the iPhone […] We will keep up our efforts to get an iPhone. It’s just that you need to sit down with Apple but you know, honestly, they need to be willing to sit down with us as much as we are willing to sit down with them.”

Apple might not be willing to play ball, but Google and Samsung are a different story. Cordova talked with great fondness about Samsung and WIND’s long partnership with the South Korean company. He mentioned that he just got back from Korea where he got a peek at the Samsung’s 2015 roadmap, so it’s safe to assume that the next flagship Galaxys will be at WIND Mobile when they launch.

Today WIND is giving away Nexus 6s on Twitter. Cordova said this was because they only have a few but they want to reward the people that have been loyal to the company over the last five years. Its relationship with Google is very good, and the company expects a full shipment of Nexus 6 units in the new year. For now, they only have a small number, and some of them are going to customers on Twitter or employees within the company that have remained steadfast in their loyalty through thick and thin.

The Future

When we brought up the future, the next five years, as opposed to the past five years, Cordova said he would rather focus on the present. Five years, he countered, is like four centuries in this industry. He says WIND is lean, and therefore capable of reacting to the market faster than other carriers. This, as well as experience afforded by its operations in international markets, is what gives WIND Mobile an edge over the competition.

“I don’t know whether in five years it’s going to be the same strategy. Definitely today, the continuity factor is important to us. We know where we want to go, and it’s not a difference place than it was five years ago, it’s just that now we have a means to get there.

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