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Bell Canada Enterprises

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BCE is Canada's biggest communications group. Its main business is Bell Canada, the country's foremost telecoms provider, offering a full range of services, including local and long-distance telecoms, wireless, cable and internet services. The group is also involved in satellite and cable television, and became the country's biggest mediaowner at the end of 2011 with the acquisition of full control of top broadcaster CTV as well as a collection of cable and sports assets. Unlike its US counterparts, BCE co-exists quite amicably with its main domestic rival Rogers. The two companies jointly own several sports franchises and mobile retail chains.


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BCE's fiercest competitor is Rogers, in wireless, cable, media and now local phone services. Others include Shaw Companies in internet, cable communications and media, and Telus in fixed, wireless and internet services in Western Canada. See Telecoms & Wireless and Media Sector indexes for other companies

Brands & Activities

BCE is Canada's biggest telecoms company, although it has suffered considerable erosion of its fixed line service from rivals and a shift towards mobile. Total accesses of 6.3m connections by the end of 2017 were well below past highs but actually up slightly year-on-year. Customers are serviced either direct under the main Bell Canada banner, or through regional subsidiaries. The biggest of these is Bell Aliant, the telecoms provider serving the Atlantic seaboard, rural Ontario and Quebec. BCE reacquired the 56% of Bell Aliant it didn't already own at the end of 2014. It had previously been publicly quoted.

The group's fixed line service is supported by wireless service Bell Mobility, one of the country's big three providers alongside Telus and Rogers. They have been jostling one another for years for leadership. By the end of 2017, Bell was in the #2 spot with 9.2m subscribers, equivalent to 30% share (ahead of Telus on 8.9m, but behind Rogers' 10.4m). More than 90% of Bell's subscribers are post-paid. The company also claims the broadest coverage, with a regional footprint four times that of Rogers. In 2005, the group launched Virgin Mobile Canada, an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) joint venture with Richard Branson's Virgin group similar to those run by Virgin in other countries. It bought out Branson's shareholding in 2009 to take full control of the business, although it retains the Virgin name. At the end of 2017 the group launched new low-cost prepaid service Lucky Mobile.

The group also operates its own extensive Bell Store retail chain to sell mobile handsets and services. In early 2009, it agreed to rescue the local operations of failed US retail group Circuit City, which trade as The Source, with around 750 outlets across the country. This competes directly with Rogers' rival retail network. In 2015 the group acquired another North American mobile retail operator Glentel, owner of the Tbooth, WirelessWave and Wireless Etc chains, and sold on a 50% stake to Rogers.

Also in 2005 BCE agreed an unprecedented alliance with Rogers to develop a national wireless broadband network in Canada. The group is already a leading force in dial-up, broadband and cable internet and broadcast services. The main internet service was traditionally routed via ISP Sympatico. For several years this was a joint venture with Microsoft's MSN, but the two partners separated in 2009, and Sympatico is now wholly owned by Bell. The group relaunched the Sympatico service in 2012 under new name TheLoop to emphasise its broader offering beyond search.

The group also offers a high-speed broadband service with streaming and video-on-demand. Around 3.8m of Canada's 14.1m households subscribe to Bell high-speed internet (equivalent to 27% share), and 2.8m to the company's direct-to-home satellite TV offering. That business, originally Bell ExpressVu, is now rebranded as Bell TV, and offers a selection of more than 500 video and audio channels. It is now supported by a cable-based service, Fibe TV (with 480k subscribers) and other broadband-based services including cloud storage.

BCE has gradually extricated itself from international investments, primarily in Latin America, to concentrate on its home market. It sold its yellow pages division in 2002 for C$3bn, and spun off e-commerce consultancy Emergis to shareholders in 2004. Satellite communications unit Telesat was spun off into a separate entity in 2007.

BCE has also ranked for several years as one of Canada's dominant mediaowners, although until recently this ownership was shared with partners. Bell Globemedia was formed in 2000 as a joint venture with Canada's Thomson family, combining leading television network CTV with leading daily national newspaper The Globe and Mail, as well as a collection of regional TV and radio stations. At the end of 2005, BCE and the Thomson family swapped shareholdings, with BCE transferring majority control to the Thomson investment vehicle Woodbridge. The business adopted a new name of CTVGlobemedia. In another restructuring of their respective holdings, BCE and Woodbridge agreed in 2010 to break up CTVGlobemedia. BCE assumed full control of CTV, while Woodbridge took charge of 85% of The Globe and Mail. BCE retains the remaining 15%. That deal was approved by regulators in early 2011. CTV has been Canada's most watched television network for more than 16 years.

In 2012, the newly renamed Bell Media division announced plans to acquire Quebec-based Astral Media, the country's largest broadcaster of pay-TV channels, as well as the largest radio owner and a leading player in outdoor advertising. However the original deal was blocked by regulators. A revised deal worth $3.4bn was approved in 2013 after Bell agreed to sell off some of Astral's smaller speciality channels. Other interests include the top-rated sports network TSN (and its Francophone counterpart RDS) and a collection of speciality cable channels. It has local rights to content from US giants including HBO, Starz, Showtime and Discovery. Bell has a leading 31% share of the English language TV market, ahead of Corus and Rogers; and 16% of the Francophone sector behind market leader Quebecor. The group launched streaming service CraveTV in 2016 which has around 1.5m subscribers. It also operates its own busy TV production studio, turning out around 45 separate series and specials a year.

Bell is also joint shareholder with Rogers of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns several leading sports teams and venues including the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team, Toronto Raptors basketball team and Toronto FC soccer club.

The group has since 2010 sponsored Bell Let's Talk, an annual charitable campaign designed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

BCE's corporate and legal status has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. For tax purposes, BCE announced plans to change its legal status from a corporation to an income trust during 2006. Those plans were later dropped following a change in tax legislation. A year later, in a move motivated mainly by fears of a potential takeover bid from an American or European telecoms group, BCE's largest shareholder, Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, began assembling a private equity bid for the business. That offer, backed by two private equity funds and worth almost C$52bn (US$49bn), was accepted by Bell Canada's board and shareholders towards the end of 2007. Ontario Teachers had hoped to close the deal by mid 2008, but the turmoil in global credit markets created serious obstacles to the deal and it finally collapsed at the end of the year. As a result BCE remains a traditional publicly quoted company.


BCE's total revenues for 2017 rose 5% to C$22.72bn. Net earnings were down almost 4% to C$2.97bn. Unlike telecoms groups operating in more populous countries, the largest share of both revenues and profits still comes from fixed line. Bell Wireline contributed revenues of C$12.42bn, a third higher than the C$7.88bn contributed by Bell Wireless. Bell Media added a further C$2.7 bn of external revenues.


Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was in fact Canadian by birth, but he moved south of the border before he invented that device in 1876. Initially he assigned control of the Canadian rights to his invention to his father, Alexander Melville Bell, who conducted a series of lectures to introduce the concept to Canadian consumers. This led to considerable interest from commercial organisations and Bell Sr eventually granted a license to the Dominion Telegraph Company to market the Bell telephone to the public. At the same time however, another company had secured a separate agreement with Thomas Edison's rival device. Chaos ensued as both companies fought to sell their incompatible systems to Canadian customers. Worse still, separate networks were established in each of the main cities, so users were only able to make local calls and could not communicate with other cities in Canada.

To resolve this confusion, The American Bell Telephone Company, later to become AT&T, decided to establish its own presence in Canada, forming The Bell Telephone Company of Canada in 1880, under the control of Charles Fleetford Sise. He promptly acquired the company which had been marketing Edison's device in order to market a single system. Among other initiatives, he also set about establishing long-distance lines to connect networks in different cities. This alone took several years. The first telephone call between Montreal, where the business was headquartered, and Vancouver didn't take place until 1916. Sise also established manufacturing subsidiary Northern Electric (later to become telecoms equipment company Nortel Networks).

American Bell gradually sold its stake in its northern offshoot, now Bell Canada, reducing its ownership to just 5% by the 1920s, before pulling out completely in the 1970s. Holding company BCE was created in 1983 and dabbled unsuccessfully in various other sectors before concentrating on telecoms. The group restructured in 2000, selling off its controlling stake in Nortel Networks, and buying television broadcaster CTV. This was merged with national newspaper The Globe and Mail (acquired from Thomson) and its internet arm Sympatico to form Bell Globemedia. In 2002, BCE bought out the 20% stake owned by minority shareholder SBC.

Last full revision 28th March 2018

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