BCE raises adjusted earnings target, expects strong wireless growth to continue

TORONTO _ BCE Inc. raised its profit guidance Thursday after reporting strong performance by its Bell Canada telecom networks and stable results from its media division.

In its outlook, BCE increased its full-year guidance for adjusted earnings per share to between $3.45 and $3.55 per share. That compared with its expectations in February for $3.42 to $3.52 per share.

“We had a good start to the year both financially and from a subscriber perspective in Q1,” chief executive George Cope told analysts in a conference call.

The company added about 102,000 subscribers to its post-paid wireless, internet and IPTV broadband services, 39 per cent more than in last year’s comparable quarter.

The quarter included 68,000 net additions to its post-paid wireless subscriber base _ BCE’s best first-quarter performance since 2011, Cope said.

“I fully expect the strong subscriber growth to continue this year, resulting in Bell Mobility being No. 1 in free cash flow generation in the country amongst wireless carriers in 2018,” Cope said.

BCE’s net profit attributable to shareholders totalled $661 million or 73 cents per share for quarter. That compared with a profit of $642 million or 73 cents per share a year ago, when the company had fewer shares outstanding.

Operating revenue totalled $5.59 billion, up from $5.34 billion.

On an adjusted basis, BCE says it earned 80 cents per share for the quarter, the same as a year ago, but two cents below the average analyst estimate of 82 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

BCE chief financial officer Glen LeBlanc said a recent regulatory decision resulted in a one-time $14-million retroactive charge to account for a lower wholesale wireless roaming rate that BCE can charge regional carriers.

Excluding the regulatory decision, BCE’s adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization would have been up 4.7 per cent instead of the 4.1 per cent reported Thursday.

The telecom giant also owns the CTV television network, specialty TV channels including TSN, and a large stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment _ owner of Toronto’s major league hockey, basketball and soccer teams.

Cope described the media division’s first quarter as “stable” despite having to compete against CBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics.

Over the quarter overall, audiences at TSN and its French-language equivalent RDS rose year-over-year, he said.

BCE’s first-quarter earnings report was issued ahead of its annual general meeting in Toronto on Thursday.

The company’s board has recommended shareholders vote against a proposal that calls for it to stop using comparisons with peer companies to determine compensation for its directors.

The shareholder proposal argues it is “one of the most significant factors behind the constant and inappropriate rise in compensation.”

BCE said it uses other factors in addition to peer comparisons when making its decisions. The board is proposing to raise the base fee for directors to $200,000 from $190,000, the first increase since 2014.