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BT To Increase Future Dividends After Profits Rise

By Lilly Vitorovich Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES LONDON -(Dow Jones)- BT Group PLC (BT.A.LN) Thursday raised its dividend for the year and said it will increase the dividend by 10% to 15% annually for the next three years as the U.K. telecommunications operator booked a rise in fourth-quarter net profit, thanks to new broadband customers and further cost cutting. BT has been cutting costs to get the business in shape, while rolling out a super-fast fiber broadband network to attract new customers. Its global services division, which provides information-technology and telecommunications services to companies, is also growing in Asia and Latin America. It also recently struck a deal with its pension trustee, which removed a major overhang on the stock, and triggered speculation among analysts that the company could increase its dividend payments. BT booked a 34% rise in net profit to GBP632 million in the fourth quarter ended March 31, beating market expectations of GBP552 million, That compares with GBP472 million in the same quarter a year earlier. BT added 136,000 retail broadband customers in the three months ended March 31, compared with rivals British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC (BSY.LN) and Virgin Media Inc. (VMED) who added 212,000 and 45,700 new broadband customers respectively over the same period. News Corp. (NWS) holds a 39.1% stake in BSkyB, and also owns Dow Jones & Co., publisher of this newswire and The Wall Street Journal. Take-up of BT's super-fast broadband product, BT Infinity, increased strongly with the addition of 131,000 customers in the fourth quarter, taking the total to more than 550,000. BT declared a final dividend of 5.7 pence, taking the total for the year to 8.3 pence, up 12% from a year earlier. Adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization--one of the main figures tracked by U.K. telecom analysts--rose 4% to GBP1.61 billion in the fourth quarter from GBP1.55 billion, beating market expectations of GBP1.58 billion. Fourth-quarter revenue fell 4% to GBP4.88 billion from GBP5.06 billion, broadly in line with expectations, as customers make fewer landline calls. A rising number of people are using their smartphones and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Skype, which offers free calls and videocalls via the Internet, to keep in contact with family and friends. In March, BT secured a deal with its pension trustee that cuts its pension deficit by nearly half to GBP2.1 billion and cleared the way to eliminate the remaining shortfall entirely, which was well received by the market. This triggered speculation among analysts that the company would increase its dividend. BT shares closed at 217 pence Wednesday, valuing the company at GBP16.91 billion. The stock has risen 14% since January, outperforming the FTSE 100 index, which has fallen 0.8% over the same period. -By Lilly Vitorovich, Dow Jones Newswires; 44-0-207 842 9290;

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