Bell wireless division in strong position amid changing industry conditions: CEO

TORONTO — Bell’s wireless division had record third-quarter subscriber additions and it’s in a good competitive position amid major industry changes such as new unlimited data plans and device financing options, BCE Inc. executives said Thursday.

BCE chief executive George Cope, who is set to retire in January, opened his last quarterly analyst call with a long list of favourable metrics in the Bell wireless division, including improved revenue per user and margins.

“We clearly had a very, very strong third quarter from a wireless perspective, our strongest third quarter on record with a net adds up 204,000 in the quarter or approximately 15 per cent,” Cope said.

The telecommunications and media company also signalled that it’s on track to meet its key 2019 full-year financial targets, a contrast to the reduced outlook announced last week by Rogers Communications Inc.

Chief financial officer Glen LeBlanc said BCE remains “firmly on track” to deliver the financial guidance that it provided at the beginning of the year and “competitively well-positioned” across its wireless, wireline and media units.

Mirko Bibic, who will take over from Cope as CEO, said “we believe we led the Canadian industry” in terms of wireless net customer additions.

Two or BCE’s competitors, Telus and Quebecor’s Videotron, haven’t reported their third-quarter results yet, but the wireless customer additions announced Thursday put Bell ahead of Rogers and Shaw’s Freedom Mobile.

During the quarter, BCE beat analyst estimates with its addition of 127,172 postpaid customers and 76,895 prepaid clients.

Canaccord Genuity had estimated BCE would add 120,000 net postpaid subscribers and RBC Capital Markets had estimated 110,000 net additions to its postpaid subscriber base, plus 50,000 prepaid wireless additions.

The prepaid wireless market segment, which has become more important to Bell since it launched Lucky Mobile, said Thursday that it continued to benefit from a distribution agreement with the Dollarama discount retail chain.

Bibic also said Bell’s wireline segment, which includes residential and business phone lines, added 58,000 retail internet subscriptions and 32,000 subscribers to its IPTV television services.

BCE’s operating revenue was in line with estimates at $5.98 billion, up from $5.88 billion, with all three business segments showing growth — led by a 3.5 per cent increase at wireless and 2.7 per cent increase at Bell Media.

However, BCE’s adjusted profit was slightly below the average analyst estimate, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

On an adjusted basis, BCE earned $820 million or 91 cents per share in the quarter ended Sept. 30, down from an adjusted profit of $861 million or 96 cents per share in the same quarter last year. The year-over-year decline was largely due to a loss in an equity hedging program, partially offset by reduced severance and other costs.

Analysts on average had expected an adjusted profit of 92 cents per share.

Analysts have been watching to see how Bell would be affected by a switch in pricing strategy, which Rogers kicked off in late June when it was the first of Canada’s three national carriers to announce data plans without overage fees — adopting a pricing strategy that Shaw’s Freedom Mobile had used against them.

Toronto-based Rogers said last week that a million of its customers had adopted its unlimited data plans since they were introduced, about three times more than expected.

But Rogers also missed analyst estimates for third-quarter adjusted earnings per share and announced lower revenue expectations for 2019, which was followed by a decline its share price.

Its stock price remains about seven per cent lower than prior to the Oct. 23 announcement while BCE and Telus share prices are down about three per cent while Shaw Communications stock is up nearly two per cent.

“While the sector’s performance was heavily affected last week due to Rogers’ results, this morning’s BCE results show very little impact from unlimited plans, again putting the spotlight on Rogers and the aggressive strategy it is pursuing to switch customers quickly to unlimited plans,” analyst Maher Yaghi wrote for Desjardins.

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