BCE to spend additional $20 billion over five years on advanced networks: CEO

TORONTO — The head of Canada’s largest communications and media business, BCE Inc., told its annual shareholders meeting on Thursday that the company is on track spend an additional $20 billion over the next five years on advanced networks.

BCE president and CEO George Cope said that investing in broadband wireless and wireline networks is “at the core” of what the Montreal-based business does.

“This year your company will invest about $4 billion of capital. It will be the same next year and will be the same the year after and the year after that,” Cope said.

In total, BCE will probably spend $20 billion of capital investments over the next five years as part of six strategic imperatives established about a decade ago .

He said Bell is about half way to reaching its strategic goal of connecting “every single home and every single business that we can get to economically with fibre (optics) right to the premises.”

With similarly large investments in wireless technology, Bell can now provide about 60 per cent of Canada with speeds that are almost 750 megabits per second, about twice as fast as any U.S. wireless network, Cope said.

“We’re investing significant capital to keep that leadership position in the marketplace and make sure Canadians have access to world leading wireless technologies going forward, for both businesses and consumers.”

BCE chief financial officer Glen LeBlanc told reporters after the meeting that an apparent shift in policy at the federal level may reduce investments in network infrastructure.

A new policy direction issued in February by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains signalled a lower priority for investments in telecom networks and a higher priority for lowering prices through a wider range of competition.

That was followed by a CRTC announcement in March that it was beginning a review of Canada’s mobile wireless market with the “preliminary view” that there should be more opportunity for mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that depend on getting wholesale access to other companies’ infrastructure.

“That worries us, that it will stifle investment in this country and ultimately Canadians will suffer” LeBlanc said.

A similarly dire warning was delivered by Rogers chief executive Joe Natale after that company’s annual meeting on April 18.

Bell announced prior to its shareholder meeting that it added 38,282 total net new postpaid and prepaid wireless customers for the three months ended March 31, down from the 44,377 added in last year’s first quarter.

The addition of 50,204 net new postpaid subscribers was down from 68,487 added a year earlier but better than analyst estimates and more than twice the 23,000 net postpaid additions announced by rival Rogers Communications Inc.

At Bell’s wireline business, which includes its conventional phone services, the company added 22,671 new retail internet customers — 24.9 per cent more than it did in last year’s first quarter.

Bell also added 20,916 new IPTV television subscribers, 54.1 per cent more than it did a year ago.

BCE’s overall profit for the first-quarter ended March 31 was up 12 per cent from a year earlier as overall revenue improved by 2.6 per cent to $5.73 billion from $5.59 billion.

The wireless division led the company in revenue growth, which was up 4.5 per cent to $2.1 billion. Wireline operating revenue increased 1.8 per cent to $3.06 billion.

Meanwhile its Bell Media business, which includes CTV, radio stations and specialty TV channels, saw operating revenue slip 0.5 per cent to $745 million.

BCE’s net profit amounted $740 million attributable to common shareholders or 82 cents per share. That was up from $661 million or 73 cents per share in the first quarter of 2018.

The Montreal-based company’s adjusted earnings per share were 77 cents, down from 80 cents per share a year earlier and one cent below the average analyst estimate.

Analysts had estimated 78 cents per share of adjusted earnings and $5.71 billion of total operating revenue, according to Thomson Reuters Eikon.

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