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Uncertainty around the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Rogers Communications Inc. to hold off on providing financial guidance for 2021, as lower roaming revenue hit its wireless business in the most recent quarter.

However, Rogers president and chief executive officer Joe Natale touted the company’s success in improving its profitability by managing costs and said the telecom’s long-term plans, including to invest in expanding its networks and deploying fifth-generation wireless service, have not changed.

“We are focused on investing in core assets to generate long-term value for our shareholders, and in fact we will be driving further network investments this year,” Mr. Natale said during a conference call Thursday as the Toronto-based telecom reported its fourth-quarter results.

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Rogers, like its peers, withdrew its financial guidance last spring, as the pandemic closed stores, grounded planes and shut down large sections of the economy. Chief financial officer Anthony Staffieri said Thursday that a lack of clarity around future travel restrictions, the country’s economic recovery and the resumption of immigration – a key driver of growth for the wireless industry – make it difficult to forecast financial results for the coming quarters.

“The COVID conditions that led to our withdrawal of our guidance back in April of 2020 continue today and there is little, if any, further clarity on the impact of the pandemic on our business and its recovery,” Mr. Staffieri said during Thursday’s conference call.

“While we can’t control near-term events such as additional lockdowns or timing of vaccinations, our teams have adjusted significantly in terms of how to operate in this volatile environment,” he added.

Rogers’s fourth-quarter revenue declined by 7 per cent from a year ago to $3.68-billion, driven largely by an 8-per-cent drop in wireless service revenue. The telecom took a $75-million year-over-year hit to roaming revenue, which comes from fees that telecoms charge when wireless customers use their devices abroad.

Although the telecom sector has seen sequential improvements since the second quarter of last year, considered a low-water mark for the industry as government restrictions led to widespread store closings, roaming revenue is likely to remain a headwind for some time. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week signalled new travel restrictions are coming and urged Canadians to cancel non-essential trips.

“With the largest roaming operation, we expect to be the major beneficiary when travel returns,” Mr. Natale said.

Overage revenue also declined for Rogers, as customers continued to switch to unlimited data packages, which throttle users’ speeds when they hit their data limits instead of charging additional fees. That transition is expected to be done by the end of the second quarter, Mr. Natale said.

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Rogers reported a $449-million profit for the three-month period ended Dec. 31, down 4 per cent from a year ago when it had $468-million in profit. The earnings amounted to 89 cents a share, down from 92 cents during the same period last year.

Analysts had been expecting $468-million in profit and $3.77-billion in revenue, according to S&P Capital IQ.

“We believe that the second phase of lockdowns, in the latter part of [the fourth quarter], had a greater-than-expected impact,” including on roaming and overage revenues, Canaccord Genuity analyst Aravinda Galappatthige said in a note to clients. However, Mr. Galappatthige pointed out profit margins were better than anticipated.

The pandemic has accelerated an industrywide shift to a self-service model, where customers are sent modems and other gear, along with instructions on how to install them. That has led to cost savings for telecoms by cutting down on the number of technicians and trucks that need to be dispatched.

Rogers added 114,000 net new wireless subscribers, 19,000 net new internet subscribers and 71,000 net new Ignite TV subscribers during the quarter. (Ignite TV is an internet protocol television service that Rogers offers.)

Royal Bank of Canada analyst Drew McReynolds called it a “solid quarter” for the cable business, whose revenue increased by about 3 per cent year over year to $1.02-billion as Rogers customers upgraded their internet service because of the pandemic.

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The media division’s revenue declined by 23 per cent to $409-million, primarily owing to lower sports-related advertising as the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association postponed and shortened their seasons.

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