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Feb 7, 2019

BCE raising dividend, 'quite comfortable' amid Huawei scrutiny

BCE CEO aims to allay concerns over Huawei impact on spending, 5G growth

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BCE Inc. (BCE.TO) is boosting its payout to shareholders and showing no sign of apprehension about the intense national scrutiny of China-based Huawei Technologies Ltd.

"As everyone knows, the government is conducting a cybersecurity review on whether to permit the continued use of Huawei equipment for 5G," said George Cope, president and CEO of BCE and Bell Canada, on a conference call Thursday morning. "We clearly recognize the issues at play and will manage those appropriately going forward and of course follow the law."

Cope pointed out Huawei has been a supplier for Bell's 3G and 4G networks, and made it clear his company hasn't selected a vendor for its next-generation 5G wireless network.

Analysts have been scrambling to assess the risk to Canada's telecommunications companies as the security review of Huawei plays out in Ottawa. Earlier this week, CIBC estimated an outright ban on Huawei equipment could result in a $1-billion "remove and replace" bill for BCE and Telus Corp. The analysts said, however, that a complete ban forcing telcos to rip out existing equipment is unlikely. They noted a 5G ban against Huawei "would still bring about some problems" for the two Canadian wireless companies.

Cope, however, attempted to assuage any concerns in the investment community when he addressed analysts Thursday.  

"If there was a ban or we chose a different supplier than Huawei for 5G, we’re quite comfortable all those developments would be addressed within our traditional capital intensity envelope and therefore no impact from a capital expenditure program outlook," Cope said. "Nor do we think whatever the outcome is would in any way impact our timing in the market for 5G.”

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    Earlier Thursday, BCE said its adjusted profit in the latest quarter rose 8.5 per cent to 89 cents per share. Analysts, on average, estimated BCE would earn 87 cents per share.

    BCE's overall net earnings fell eight per cent to $642 million in the fourth quarter, in part due to a $190-million non-cash impairment charge in its Bell Media division.

    The company's closely-watched wireless division added 121,780 net new subscribers in the fourth quarter. In comparison, Rogers added 112,000 net new postpaid subscribers in the same quarter. In a release, Cope referred to the wireless market as "intensely competitive."

    BCE announced on Thursday its annual dividend will rise five per cent to $3.17 per share, effective on April 19.

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