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BCE Inc. reported flat revenue for the third quarter as subscription gains and greater ad spending were offset by slower demand for new wireless devices.

The telecom company said Thursday that revenue reached $5.8-billion in the quarter that ended in September, up 0.8 per cent compared with a year earlier. Profit jumped 9.9 per cent to $813-million in the quarter, or 83 cents a share, from $740-million or 77 cents a share a year earlier.

Bell’s postpaid wireless customer base added 115,000 subscribers, a sharp increase in the rate of growth compared with 2020 as its retail stores reopened. As strong as that growth was, however, it didn’t come close to the 175,000 new postpaid subscribers that Rogers Communications Inc. said it added in the third quarter.

The number of new prepaid wireless customers in the quarter fell by nearly half to 22,000, which the company attributed to a continued slowdown in immigration and global travel. Postpaid customers pay at month-end for services used, while prepaid pay upfront.

Even as revenue from wireless services grew 5 per cent over all, to $1.7-billion, Bell’s product revenue fell 13.6 per cent to $642-million as customers held off on phone upgrades. On an analyst call, chief financial officer Glen LeBlanc said that people are holding on to their phones because of recently introduced instalment-based phone payment plans and “the lack of new iconic handsets to generate buzz and stimulate the market.”

Analyst Aravinda Galappatthige of Canaccord Genuity said in a research note Thursday that BCE’s wireless performance was “solid,” thanks to its service growth.

The company also said that while it did see modest growth in roaming income as Canadians began travelling more in the quarter, COVID-19 continues to dampen the revenue stream.

“COVID is still with us,” Bell’s chief executive Mirko Bibic said in an interview Thursday. “Roaming’s not back. Immigration’s not back. Store traffic is much better than it was when we were locked down but it’s not back to 2019 levels … and there are some supply-chain issues that the entire industry is dealing with.”

Mr. Bibic said he expects roaming revenues, which telecoms collect when wireless customers use their devices abroad, to return to prepandemic levels once people become more comfortable travelling.

As BCE continued rolling out fibre-based internet services, the company said its nearly 66,000 new home-internet subscribers in the quarter was the highest rate of increase in 15 years. A 9.1-per-cent jump in home-internet subscription revenue, meanwhile, was in part offset by a 21.5-per-cent drop in income from internet equipment sales from a year earlier, when organizations were racing to build capacity for remote work.

Mr. Bibic said he expects Bell to pick up market share in the the home-internet business as it continues to build out its fibre-optic network at an accelerated pace. Earlier this year, Montreal-based BCE announced plans to boost its network investments by between $1.5-billion and $1.7-billion over two years, in part because of a favourable regulatory decision.

“Fibre is superior to any other technology,” Mr. Bibic said. “Customers want the fastest speed and the most reliable internet service. They want the modem to cover the entirety of the house with WiFi. If you can address those key touchpoints for the customer on broadband, you’re going to get share.”

BCE’s media division saw 14.5-per-cent revenue growth, to $719-million, as advertisers boosted spending amid a return to predictable programming, including sports broadcasts, with some help from federal election ads – while more customers signed up for Bell’s Crave streaming service. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Desjardins analyst Jérome Dubreuil said of the division’s performance.

Mr. Bibic said the company has been working hard since the start of the pandemic to improve its ability to sell and service its customers digitally.

“We’re so, so much better than we were in Q2 last year because it wasn’t an area of strength for us. We were always very reliant on retail stores … we’re not where we need to be but it’s vastly improved,” Mr. Bibic said.

Mr. LeBlanc said that despite continued uncertainty from the pandemic, BCE expects to hit the 2021 financial targets the company first announced in February. That includes annual revenue growth of between 2 per cent and 5 per cent and an annualized dividend of $3.50 a share.

The telecom company also said that its capital expenditures in wireless infrastructure grew by 12.4 per cent in the quarter as it builds out its 5G network.

BCE shares closed up 0.8 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange Thursday.

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