BCE says it will keep dividend growth strategy if Astral deal doesn't go ahead

MONTREAL – BCE Inc.’s strategy to keep growing its shareholder dividend is on track and doesn’t depend on the acquisition of Astral Media, the telecom giant said Thursday.

BCE will have the ability to increase its free cash flow to maintain its dividend growth and the telecom company is also on track to meet its 2012 financial guidance, said CEO George Cope.

“The company’s market capital strategy hasn’t changed, no matter what the outcome of the Astral transaction ends up being,” Cope said, after announcing BCE’s quarterly profit dropped 12 per cent to $569 million.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission nixed Bell’s $3.4-billion friendly takeover of Montreal’s Astral, saying it wasn’t in the best interests of Canadians. Bell has asked federal cabinet to get involved, but the government has shown little appetite to do so.

The deadline for the deal to be completed has been extended to Dec. 16 and either BCE (TSX:BCE) or Astral (TSX:ACM.A) can further extend it by one month.

Cope was told by a financial analyst on a conference call that the “view on the Street” is that BCE may have to seek new acquisitions to fund its dividend if the Astral deal doesn’t go ahead.

“We don’t concur with that,” Cope said. “(But) there’s no doubt the acquisition that we were looking at was going to help generate even more cash flow than we had anticipated on an organic basis.”

When the acquisition was announced last March, BCE said it would use free cash flow from Astral to help fund its dividend. BCE has said its common share dividend increase for 2012 is five per cent.

Cope said he was “clearly very disappointed and surprised” by the CRTC’s decision. He noted that BCE has made its request to cabinet and “we continue to wait for a response on that.”

In its financial results, net income for the three months ended Sept. 30 dropped to $569 million, or 12 per cent, from $642 million in the same quarter in 2011. Earnings per share were 74 cents versus 83 cents year-over-year.

Adjusted net earnings fell to $588 million, or 76 cents per share compared with $724 million and 93 cents per share year-over-year.

The adjusted EPS was a penny below analyst estimates compiled by Thomson Reuters, while mean estimates for revenue came in at $4.9 billion.

Revenue at the Montreal-based telecom and media company’s was up slightly from the same time last year — $4.98 billion, compared with $4.91 billion in the third quarter of 2011.

Most of that came from Bell Canada, BCE’s main subsidiary. Bell’s operating revenue was $4.39 billion, up from $4.31 billion a year earlier.

Cope said BCE had strong growth across its wireless, TV, Internet and media businesses.

Bell’s wireless division had 149,00 net new subscribers, up 17.1 per cent from the same quarter last year. These subscribers are generally on lucrative three-year smartphone contracts.

By comparison, competitor Rogers Communications Inc. (TSX:RCI.B) added 76,000 net postpaid customers who bought iPhones, BlackBerrys or Android smartphones in its third quarter.

Bell’s revenue from its wireless operations increased 7.1 per cent to $1.4 million year-over-year. The wireless division had mobile data revenue growth of 29.5 per cent in the quarter.

Bell Media, which includes the CTV assets, saw its revenue in the quarter increase by 25.5 per cent to $546 million, helped by broadcasting the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“Not including the Olympics, advertising sales in Q3 across Bell Media’s television, radio and digital media properties continued to be impacted by a soft advertising market as a result of a slow-growing economy,” BCE said.

Bell’s relatively new Bell Fibe TV, a direct challenge to cable operators such as Rogers, added 42,973 net new subscribers, up from 20,297 in the same quarter in 2011. At the end of the quarter, Fibe TV had 200,000 subscribers.

Revenue from Bell’s wireline division, which includes TV, Internet and home phone services, was $2.5 million, down four per cent year-over year. The decline reflects a decrease in local and access, long distance and equipment and other revenues, BCE said.

Bell also added more than 13,000 Internet subscribers in the quarter, versus a net loss of 101 in the same quarter in 2011.

Long distance revenues declined 13.9 per cent to $192 million. The year-over-year decline reflected fewer minutes of use by residential and business customers and technology substitution, BCE said.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Tim Casey said the results reflect “solid” performances by BCE’s wireless and media divisions.

“BCE’s Q3 financial results were relatively in line; subscriber results were encouraging,” Casey said in a research note.

“All in, it was a good quarter with encouraging momentum to finish 2012,” Casey said.

Shares in BCE were down 41 cents to $43.25 in early afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.