TORONTO — BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. said Thursday they netted big increases in their wireless subscriber base during the fourth quarter, when they bested Rogers Communications Inc. in a holiday season battle to sign customers in a postpaid plan price war.
BCE, the owner of Bell Mobility, Virgin Mobile and Lucky Mobile, had a total of 158,514 net wireless activations during the quarter, including 175,204 postpaid subscriptions — ahead of a consensus estimate of about 113,000.
Telus, which owns Koodo and Public Mobile in addition to its flagship Telus wireless brand, had 98,000 net additions including 121,000 postpaid subscriptions — which was ahead of a consensus estimate of just under 100,000.
In both cases, gains in postpaid subscriptions were partly offset by losses in pre-paid accounts.
In contrast to the gains made by BCE and Telus, Rogers reported last month that it had only 72,000 net additions in the fourth quarter — well below the 100,000 or so that analysts had expected. The company experienced a technical problem with its price-adjustment system — limiting its ability to sign up customers and resulting in some prospective customers turning to its competitors.
BCE had been expected to do well during the fourth quarter, one of the most important times of the year for wireless carriers, but analysts expressed surprise that its postpaid additions were so much higher than their estimates.
Barclays Capital analyst Phillip Huang wrote in a note to clients that Bell seems to have taken "significant market share" during a five-day promo in mid-December — a period when Rogers suffered technical problems.
Telus seems to have held its own in wireless against Bell during the quarter in terms of market share.
"Based on the numbers that we have seen, we definitely did very well (during the quarter)," Telus chief financial officer Doug French said in an interview before the company's conference call.
French said he didn't think Telus had lost market share to Bell and had been able to capitalize on the high volume of customer activations during the pre-Christmas shopping season.
"We were able to meet our customer demands across multiple channels . . . whether that be online, in stores or through the call centre," French said.
On the BCE conference call, CEO George Cope said he couldn't recall ever having such good combination of wireless subscriber growth, market share gains and financial results in one quarter.
"Importantly, we are looking for this momentum to continue into 2018," Cope said.
BCE announced that its annual dividend is rising to $3.02 per common share, or 75.5 cents per quarter starting in April, driven by higher free cash flow.
BCE is estimating slower revenue growth during 2018, rising by two to four per cent rather than 4.6 per cent in 2017, while adjusted earnings per share is estimated at $3.42 to $3.52 per share, up from $3.39 last year.
Several analysts described BCE's overall fourth quarter, including its wired phone, internet and television services and its media division, as close to their expectations.
BCE's fourth-quarter net income fell to $575 million or 64 cents per share, from $657 million or 75 cents in the last quarter of 2016. The 2017 quarter included higher severance and acquisitions costs, a higher net loss on investments and asset impairment charges.
On an adjusted basis, BCE says it earned $684 million or 76 cents per share, up from $667 million or 76 cents per share a year ago. Analysts on average had expected a profit of 75 cents per share of adjusted earnings, according to Thomson Reuters.
Operating revenue rose 4.5 per cent to $5.96 billion compared with $5.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2016.
Telus Corp.'s fourth quarter revenue was up five per cent from a year earlier to $3.47 billion.
Its net profit rose to $282 million, or 47 cents per share, up from $81 million or 14 cents per share a year ago when Telus was hit by restructuring and other costs.
On an adjusted basis, Telus says it earned $328 million or 55 cents per share in the quarter, up from an adjusted profit of $316 million or 53 cents per share.
Companies in this story: (TSX:BCE, TSX:T, TSX:RCI.B)
David Paddon, The Canadian Press