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Aug 4, 2022

BCE CEO sees Q3 boost from Rogers customers jumping ship

Q2 strength will continue into Q3: BCE’s CEO Mirko Bibic

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For all the worries about a possible recession, and consumers struggling under the weight of inflation at the highest level since January 1983, it’s not showing up in the numbers at BCE Inc., the company’s chief executive said Thursday.

“The consumer behaviour has been really strong,” said Mirko Bibic, who is also BCE’s president, in an interview.

“Customers are buying, you know, 5G handsets, they're subscribing, they're connecting to 5G networks; 5G customers use their phones and data, you know, basically twice as much, and they spend about 20 per cent more, so we're kind of seeing healthy growth on 5G. And on the internet side, actually, customers are subscribing to the higher speed plans. So what we're seeing so far is quite healthy and we're not seeing any pressure on our receivables … so the payments are strong as well.”

It’s a different portrait of consumer habits than what one of BCE’s large American peers recently presented last month. AT&T Inc. Chief Executive John Stankey said some customers are taking longer to pay their bills; and told analysts on a conference call that a portion of the company’s customer base is “having to adjust spending patterns and behaviours and prioritization” of how they pay their bills, while stressing the trend isn’t “alarming.” Nonetheless, the comments about consumer habits fed into concerns that pushed AT&T’s stock price down almost eight per cent that day.

And while BCE said Thursday its second-quarter wireless product revenue dipped 0.9 per cent to $543 million because of fewer upgrades, Bibic said that’s no surprise given the investments customers make in their handsets.

“Those are pretty powerful computers that you have in the palm of your hand and they can be, you know, fairly expensive and they're higher quality. So consumers are paying for these devices. They're lasting longer. Consumers are holding on to them longer so there's less of a need to switch devices every couple of years,” he said.

The company’s wireless business saw a near doubling in subscriber growth during the second quarter, as it added a net 83,197 postpaid customers, compared to 44,433 a year earlier. BCE also said its churn of postpaid wireless users improved to an all-time low of 0.75 per cent.

By comparison, Rogers Communications Inc. last week said it added a net 122,000 postpaid wireless subscribers in the second quarter, doubling year-ago growth; and its postpaid subscriber churn fell to 0.68 per cent from 0.76 per in the second quarter of 2021.

Churn, which measures turnover and where a lower number is better, could end up in the spotlight for the telecom industry in the coming quarters in the aftermath of Rogers Communications Inc.’s network outage last month — and Bibic indicated he sees an opportunity for growth.  

“Another kind of tailwind for us we think in Q3 will be some of the switching behaviours as a result of our competitor’s outage in early July,” he said.

He pointed out, however, that Rogers’ network failure was no cause for celebration amongst its rivals, where there’s a culture of collaboration when one carrier’s services break down.

“It was a very unfortunate incident that no one ever wants to see. And we always reach out to help when that happens to one of our competitors. And I can say, you know, when we've had issues in the past — you know, smaller in nature — but when we've had issues in the past, could be something like a fibre cut that affects a particular region, our competitors are quick to reach out to help us as well.”

BCE reaffirmed its full-year financial forecasts Thursday after its second-quarter profit rose about five per cent.

The telecommunications giant said its adjusted net profit rallied 5.3 per cent year-over-year in the second quarter to $791 million. On a per share basis, it earned $0.87; analysts, on average, were expecting $0.84 in per-share profit. Its adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) also edged past the average estimate at $2.59 billion.

BCE’s wireline business contributed the most to the company’s overall revenue, even as the haul from that unit slipped 0.3 per cent year-over-year to $2.99 billion. While supply chain problems held back product sales to enterprise customers, retail internet subscriber growth surged 27.9 per cent year-over-year.

The most robust growth during the second quarter was in BCE’s media division, where revenue rose 8.7 per cent year-over-year to $821 million. The company attributed that to ad growth, the return of the F1 Grand Prix to Montreal, and subscriber gains in its Crave streaming business. However, the return of that F1 race also contributed to a slight deterioration in the media unit’s margins.

“BCE reported second-quarter results that were generally better than expectations. Similar to Rogers, the company saw a strong print on wireless post net adds and very low churn. Overall, wireless and media were a bright spot while wireline was steady,” wrote Scotia Capital Markets Analyst Maher Yaghi in a note to clients. He cautioned, however, that “weakness could be felt” in BCE’s media division in the second half of this year due to the economic slowdown.

BNN Bloomberg is a division of Bell Media, which is owned by BCE.