BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada is speeding up the expansion of its internet and wireless networks, with plans to boost its infrastructure spending to about $4.7-billion this year and expects its business to fully recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic over that period.
Bell announced on Thursday that it will boost its capital expenditures between $1-billion and $1.2-billion over two years, and reported a fourth-quarter profit of $932-million, up 28.9 per cent from a year ago.
The increase will come on top of Bell’s typical capital expenditures of about $4-billion a year, and roughly $700-million of it will come in 2021, the company said.
That will allow the Montreal-based telecom to connect up to 900,000 additional homes and businesses to its fibre-optic and fixed wireless networks and to double the size of its 5G wireless footprint this year. (Fixed wireless technology allows a fibre-optic network to be extended with wireless signals, making it a cost-effective way to connect rural areas.)
Mirko Bibic, president and chief executive officer of Bell and BCE, called it the largest capital expenditure program in the company’s 141-year history.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest infrastructure projects going on in the country,” Mr. Bibic said in an interview. “From a shareholder perspective … this is how we’re going to continue to generate growth.”
Bell also provided a financial outlook on Thursday for 2021, in spite of significant economic uncertainty that has prompted rival Rogers Communications Inc. to delay such guidance. (Rogers is more affected by the pandemic because of its ownership of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and the fact that more of its revenue comes from the wireless business.)
Bell is targeting revenue and adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) growth of between 2 and 5 per cent for 2021, which chief financial officer Glen LeBlanc called “a recovery year.”
“While the path of the pandemic and the pace of economic recovery are expected to remain uneven, potentially constraining revenue and earnings growth in parts of our business in the near-term, the industry fundamentals are sound,” Mr. LeBlanc told investors during a conference call to discuss the company’s results.
COVID-19 has affected Canadian telecoms in numerous ways, from steep drops in the high-margin roaming revenues charged when customers use their devices abroad, to lower overall growth in the wireless market stemming from halted immigration. Bell’s media division, which saw its fourth-quarter revenue decline by 10 per cent to $791-million, has been the hardest hit, as advertisers pulled back spending.
Bell Media laid off hundreds of workers this week, including on-air reporters at radio stations. Mr. Bibic said the cuts were driven by a need to be “agile and cost efficient.”
“I totally appreciate that I say these things from the perspective of running a very big business, but at the end of these decisions are people that are directly affected,” he added.
BCE had $6.1-billion in revenue during the three-month period ended Dec. 31, down slightly from $6.28-billion a year ago. Its earnings amounted to 98 cents a share, up from 74 cents a share owing to lower costs in various areas.
Analysts had expected earnings of 74 cents a share and revenue of $6.16-billion, according to the consensus estimate from S&P Capital lQ.
Bell added 81,256 net new wireless customers during the quarter, compared with 123,582 during the same period last year. The company also added 44,512 net new retail internet customers and 21,106 IPTV subscribers. Canaccord Genuity analyst Aravinda Galappatthige called the internet and TV customer additions “robust.”
The telecom’s plan to accelerate its capital expenditures comes amid growing demand for broadband owing to the pandemic, which has moved workplaces, schools and entertainment online.
Bell will fund the expansion with proceeds from the sale of its data-centre business to U.S.-based Equinix Inc. for $1.04-billion last summer. The telecom will also take advantage of a federal program that offers larger tax deductions to encourage capital investments.
Mr. Bibic said Canada’s “relatively stable regulatory environment” gave Bell the confidence to increase its network investments.
Canada’s largest telecoms, including Bell, have previously said they would have to curtail infrastructure spending if the country’s telecom regulator brought in onerous rules, such as forcing the national carriers to sell access to their wireless networks to resellers at mandated rates. The regulator is still mulling such a policy, and is reviewing a contentious August, 2019, ruling that slashed how much Canada’s large phone and cable companies can charge third-party internet providers for access to their broadband networks.
Mr. Bibic said he was encouraged by comments from the federal cabinet last summer that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s decision to slash wholesale broadband rates could stifle investment in telecom infrastructure. “That’s a very important signal in my mind,” Mr. Bibic said.
Bell also announced that it has increased its quarterly dividend by 5.1 per cent, starting with the April 15 payment. Shareholders will receive $3.50 a share on an annual basis, up 17 cents from $3.33 in 2020.
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