O2’s merger with Virgin Media seems more of a marriage of convenience than a determined pursuit of synergy benefits. With the owners effectively selling their stakes, the combination will be well-advised to exercise caution in any convergence strategy that they pursue.

O2’s results this quarter appear to be fairly decent with all metrics ticking up slightly, although caution is advised in interpretation and pressure on ARPU has not eased.

With the mobile sector reasonably well insulated from COVID-19 and O2 likely to fare better than most in out-of-contract discounts, the short-term outlook is relatively robust, but competitive and macroeconomic vulnerabilities remain on the horizon.

The UK lockdown since mid-March has boosted TV time to levels not seen since 2014, with broadcast TV and online video each growing by nearly 40 minutes/person/day.

While trends vary significantly by demographic, news consumption has been a common catalyst for linear TV’s growth, benefitting the BBC above all. Although Sky News has also flourished, Sky’s portfolio has been seriously impacted by the lack of live sport.

2019 extended many of the long-running trends of the last decade, but, notably, online video’s growth rate appeared to slow among youngsters, in contrast to older demographics. 35-54-year-olds watching more VOD will have significant implications for linear broadcasters down the line.

The press has reported on an imminent merger of O2 and Virgin Media (UK). This is not likely to be driven by the pursuit of revenue synergies as dis-synergies are more likely if the brands are merged.

Cost synergies are real, albeit a bit tangential. However, in a mature market even modest synergies are worth pursuing.

A full regulatory review may be required but approval is likely. Market impact is somewhat nuanced, with the benefit of a distracted competitor short-term and a larger but still rational operator ultimately.

When we look back at consumer expenditure on pay-TV and alternative entertainment options during past economic downturns across major countries, we find a broad confirmation of the industry’s comparative resilience.

Also found are variations between services sold through annual contracts and cancel-anytime rivals, a negative impact on big-ticket products, and opportunities for substitutional services.

Unique features in the current crisis include the suspension of sport broadcasts and an SVOD-rich offering which widens consumer options. If hardship persists, incumbents like Sky could face tougher times than during the financial crisis.

At the Enders/Deloitte Media & Telecoms 2020 and Beyond conference the economic and policy importance of telecoms infrastructure was a major theme, particularly in the current climate.

Operators envisage a pricing environment that will continue to be very challenging.

Help is required to secure infrastructure investment, deliver the economic upside from 5G, and level the playing field between sub-sectors.

Market revenue growth dipped to below zero in Q4 2019, as pricing pressures bite and smaller players gather share.

2020 is off to a challenging start, with new customer pricing dipping down again, and existing customer pricing under regulatory assault.

With expensive full fibre networks being built, persuading consumers to pay more for the higher speeds they enable will be key.

Virgin Media’s subscriber base fell again in Q4, although strong ARPU growth allowed a slight acceleration in cable revenue growth to 1.8%, and a deceleration in OCF decline to 1%.

Liberty Global group OCF guidance of mid-single digit decline in 2020 is likely to be mirrored at Virgin Media, as regulatory pressure and market competitiveness continue to bite, and mass-market demand for ultrafast remains nascent.

We continue to believe that the best way for Virgin Media to capitalise on full fibre rollouts is to use a wholesale deal with Openreach to expand its footprint to (eventually) nationwide.

The Government appears set on reducing the scale and scope of the BBC by dismantling the licence fee, and in its place pushing for subscription or making payment voluntary, without any evidence of the likely impact.

DTT – the UK’s largest TV platform – has no conditional access capability, and so implementation would require another costly and long-term switchover.

A voluntary licence fee would inevitably lead to a huge reduction in income. If just those on income-related benefits were not to pay, the shortfall would be over £500 million – in addition to the £250 million the BBC will be funding for over-75s receiving Pension Credit.

The speeds made possible by full fibre build are unnecessary for most users in the short term, giving limited commercial advantage to those that can offer them, but are likely to prove essential in the medium/long term.

The economics of full-scale, independent alternative networks look very challenging in our view – especially without the support of Sky – although there are some limited arbitrage/cherry-picking opportunities.

The Openreach full fibre model makes economic sense under Ofcom’s proposed regulatory framework, provided it retains the lion’s share of the market, although considerable risks remain.

Market revenue growth fell in Q3 to below 1%, and may drop below zero next quarter as existing customer pricing comes under more pressure

New customer pricing is however rising, and average pricing should rise much further as ultrafast increases in availability and popularity 

Political enthusiasm for full fibre should be welcomed, although some specific plans are likely to do more harm than good if implemented literally