VMO2 ended 2023 with strong ARPU and EBITDA growth, meeting its (revised) guidance for the full year, but saw receding subscriber momentum across both fixed and mobile.

2024 will be much tougher across the industry and for VMO2 in particular, with its revenue expected to be flat at best, and waning boosts from price rises and synergies coupled with a series of technical factors shrinking EBITDA.

The company has promised new commercial initiatives in 2024, and thereafter we see strong potential in it maximizing the use of its network and retail arms via breaking the long-standing lock between them, although the formation of NetCo is neither a necessary nor sufficient step for this.

With a difficult price rise adjustment now behind it, VMO2’s subscriber momentum is much improved, in part aided by accelerated network expansion.

Backbook pricing remains under pressure on the fixed network with revenues down 1.2% in spite of sizeable price rises and footprint expansion—upcoming OTS may exacerbate this issue.

VMO2 has thus far only countered the downside of the UK’s fibre revolution. A new approach to branding and expansion of its addressable market are upside opportunities—with the ultimate potential to even deliver improvements on its previous position.

Mobile service revenue growth finally got close to the rate of inflation this quarter, doubling to 7.5% as the operators benefitted from mid-teen price rises.

Growth will wane from here with expected revenue growth of 6% this calendar year and 3% next, with ongoing cost-inflation pressures.

H3G looks set to fare better than others on the top-line in 2024 but its profitability is looking somewhat irredeemable, with negative cashflow even with more normalised capex.

While VMO2's fixed price rises this year were always going to be quite tricky, the 1ppt boost to revenue growth was nonetheless disappointing on the back of price rises of 14%.

Both mobile and EBITDA performances were better, but H2 EBITDA growth will need to be considerably stronger to get to guidance levels, which will be all the more challenging with the loss of the Lycamobile MVNO.

With the erosion of VMO2's differentiators of split contracts and broadband speeds, growth at VMO2 will require addressing new parts of the market—both geographically and across the customer range.

Vodafone and H3G have finally announced their long-trailed merger plans, with weaker-than-expected financials and the focus squarely on the superiority of a combined network.

We view the hailed synergy estimates of £700m per year as achievable but the merged entity will need to deliver other positive financial filips to get returns above its cost of capital.

The approval case for the merger is that: it makes the operators a stronger competitive force; prices won't rise; a combined network will be superior, and that the status quo is unsustainable in any case.

VMO2 had a subdued Q1, with EBITDA growth only just positive—this was pre-warned due to tougher comparables and the mid-teens price rise not due to take effect until April/May.

KPIs were mixed: fixed was fairly strong and mobile was slightly weak, with there being realistic hope that the former is a trend and the latter a blip, although more work is required to fully turn around fixed.

Guidance for mid-single-digit EBITDA growth for 2023 has been maintained. This now excludes the nexfibre construction margin benefit, thus is in a sense an upgrade, and still looks eminently achievable.

Headline inflation-busting price increases of 14% mask effective increases averaging a sub-inflation 8%, due to their limited scope across the customer base and over time.

The high headline increases have led to attacks from political and consumer groups, we would argue unfairly, and may yet drive reputational damage.

Looking forward, inflationary increases may be banned, but we would expect higher fixed increases to replace them, and micro-regulating pricing structures does tend to result in unintended consequences.

Telcos are pressing the EU to force big tech to make a ‘fair contribution’ to their network costs, although this has drawn opposition from telecoms regulators, who rightly fear risks to the wider ecosystem

There are valid concerns to address however, with content providers not currently incentivised to deliver traffic efficiently, and telcos constrained by net neutrality rules from doing anything about it, resulting in unnecessary costs and service degradation

However, there may be better ways to address these, through reforming the implementation of existing rules to encourage more efficient content delivery, and allowing the telcos to provide enhanced delivery routes of their own, with Ofcom’s approach in the UK a step in this direction, but perhaps not a step far enough

Cost-of-living pressures and tougher fixed competition drove VMO2’s revenues (just) back into negative territory this quarter.

Synergy benefits, however, delivered impressive EBITDA growth (+5%) with more to come as the Virgin Mobile MVNO shifts on-network next quarter.

We struggle to foresee convergence becoming the company’s next growth driver as trailed by the CEO, but the mobile outlook is fairly robust and there are steps that can be taken to shore up the pressurised fixed business.

Mobile service revenue growth rose to its highest level in over ten years (+4.5%) as a result of the operators’ higher-than-inflation price rises.

BT/EE fared best with broadly-applied, sizeable increases and robust churn while H3G’s more modest increases and later timing led to just a minor pickup in its service revenue growth—in spite of continued strong performance on the subscriber side.

There are some early signs of an increase in consumer bargain-hunting and some payment challenges, with B2B robust for now but with an increasingly rocky outlook.