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Shaw posts overall loss on Corus investment, cable woes despite gains by its key wireless unit

Shaw Communications Inc.’s wireless business is growing steadily, but despite network and product investments, its much larger legacy cable and internet division continues to be a “blemish” on the company’s financial performance.

The Calgary-based telecom provider reported its fiscal third-quarter numbers on Thursday, recording a loss of $91-million, or 18 cents a share, compared with a profit of $133-million, or 27 cents a share, in the same period last year, as it booked a $284-million writedown on the value of its investment in Corus Entertainment Inc. amid declines in that company’s television business.

Shaw’s own operational numbers revealed continued progress at Freedom Mobile, where it added 54,200 new contract wireless customers, in line with expectations after smashing forecasts in the second quarter with 93,500 new contract subscribers. Revenue at the division surged by 54 per cent to $237-million and Freedom, which operates in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, recorded a 7.5-per-cent increase in average revenue per user (a key industry metric known as ARPU) to $39.84 a month .

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More than one-third of Freedom’s customers now use Apple devices after the company struck a deal with the U.S. giant to sell the iPhone directly to customers last fall, and subscribers with expensive smartphones tend to spend more money on data plans.

But at its cable division, where Shaw has invested in faster internet speeds and a new television platform, it lost more subscribers than expected, shedding 16,583 cable TV customers and even posting a loss of 2,941 internet subscribers.

Chief executive officer Brad Shaw said a number of factors contributed to that performance, including seasonal disconnects as students cancel internet service when they go home for the summer as well as aggressive promotions from Shaw’s main rival Telus Corp.

Yet, even putting those factors aside, “We are not pleased with the overall execution within our wireline business,” Mr. Shaw said, referencing the industry term for “wired” services such as television and internet. “We need to be more effective in the way we price and package our services and improve our ability to target customers with more effective offers.”

“Wireless continues to gain momentum,” Barclays Capital analyst Phillip Huang wrote, noting that Shaw is also improving its distribution footprint after announcing an agreement to sell Freedom Mobile service in 140 Walmart stores, building on a previous deal with Loblaws’ The Mobile Shop. Distribution is a key factor in wireless sales and the company said that, by early 2019, it hopes to offer Freedom Mobile service at 600 retail locations, including its own corporate stores.

However, “wireline [was] once again the blemish,” Mr. Huang added.

Shaw is in the midst of organizational upheaval after 25 per cent of its work force − 3,300 workers − took the company up on voluntary buyout offers earlier this year. It said 850 employees left between March 29 and the end of the third quarter on May 31.

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Many of the first departures were managers as Shaw restructured its leadership team and lost some senior executives including chief financial officer Vito Culmone and chief marketing officer Jim Little.

President Jay Mehr said on Thursday that the company is more focused than ever, but admitted that the recent departures could have affected Shaw’s internet results in the quarter.

“To be clear, we’re managing an awful lot of change and it’s probably part of the story,” he said, adding he expects the numbers to “bounce back” in the fourth quarter as Shaw reworks its sales strategy.

Overall revenue at Shaw increased by 6.9 per cent to $1.3-billion, slightly below forecasts, while operating income (before restructuring costs and amortization) grew by 7 per cent to $547-million, meeting estimates. Shaw shares fell 98 cents, or 3.5 per cent, to close at $26.76 on Thursday.

The Globe and Mail has previously reported that Shaw is seeking a buyer for its stake in Corus − Shaw owns 39 per cent of Corus’s non-voting shares, it said on Thursday − which it acquired after selling its Shaw Media content business to Corus in 2016.​ (The Shaw family owns the majority of the voting shares in both companies.) Shaw could use the capital to make big investments in its wireless business, where it still needs to make network improvements as well as costly purchases of cellular airwaves.

Mr. Shaw would not comment on Thursday on the prospect of selling the Corus shares, saying only that Shaw can handle Corus’s move to cut its dividend by almost 80 per cent as it has not factored income from the Corus payout into its own free-cash-flow estimates or dividend plans. A spokeswoman for Corus declined to comment on Shaw’s decision to write down the value of its investment Thursday, which came after Corus itself recorded an impairment charge of $1-billion on its broadcast TV licences.

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