COVID, potential consolidation, implications for ALF pricing and non-contiguous blocks have conspired to make the forthcoming second 5G spectrum auction a highly complicated affair.

H3G seems unlikely to bid in a meaningful way for the 5G spectrum (3.6GHz+) but is expected to share the 700MHz band with EE. With the three leading operators likely to split the 3.6GHz+ spectrum between them, proceeds of £1bn-£2.7bn are conceivable.

The non-contiguous nature of the spectrum blocks on offer risks the operators ending up with fragmented holdings in spite of Ofcom’s endeavours to encourage trading—an efficiency loss of up to 20%.

It is widely expected that Apple will announce the first 5G iPhone at its event on 13 October, over a year after the UK launch of 5G networks, in contrast to Apple’s early start and key role in the launch of 4G

While the UK operators were early to launch 5G, the roll-out has thus far progressed slower than 4G did

The operator focus on 5G continues to be capacity as opposed to services, with 5G offering eye-watering speeds but not enabling any mass-market consumer services that 4G is not perfectly capable of

 

With the European Commission’s decision to block the H3G/O2 merger annulled and with new H3G management sounding a very pro-consolidation tone, the prospect of mobile operators going from four to three in the UK seems to be back on the cards.

Both H3G/Vodafone and H3G/O2/Virgin Media combinations seem possible although each has its own complexity—existing network sharing arrangements being one of them.

With 5G delays and mounting costs following the decision to ban Huawei, consolidation is increasingly feeling like the most viable option for H3G whose returns are already too low and falling rapidly.

The sector was hit harder than expected by COVID-19 with a 5ppt deterioration in service revenue trends and operators are now sounding a more cautious note.

H3G bucked the trend with improving service revenues thanks to lower exposure to COVID-related impacts and a shift towards indirect distribution—a change in strategy since the end of 2019.

The outlook is better for next quarter as some drags weaken due to the easing of lockdown.  The business market remains particularly vulnerable however as the furlough scheme ends and economic weakness takes hold.

Premium sports subscriptions are the primary sector weakness in the current crisis, and they look set to drive fixed operator revenues down 10% next quarter and Sky’s EBITDA down by 60%.

As lockdown eases, latent broadband demand can be more easily sated, and sports subscriptions will bounce back from the September quarter. A surge in working-from-home is likely to increase both the quantity and quality of home broadband demand, with ‘failover’ mobile backup also likely to be of greater interest.

Openreach will benefit from accelerated demand for full fibre, converged operators will be best-placed to offer mobile backup for broadband, and operators with a strong corporate presence will most easily target demand for home-working products.

The slow recovery in UK mobile continued this quarter with a 1ppt improvement in service revenue trends.

In spite of operator guidance to the negative, the sector is likely to remain relatively resilient in the face of COVID-19 in the short term, with its various impacts affecting operators differently depending on their business mix.

The outlook is relatively robust with the impact of some regulatory initiatives muted by lockdown measures and the annualization of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter.
 

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 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.

Broadcast radio has maintained its reach and listening time over the past decade: younger people listen less than before, but this is made up for by an ageing population.

The challenges to radio come from changes in distribution technology in the home and in cars, and from product innovation in the online audio space.

Over the next few years, we predict continued stability in radio, but as technology brings it into closer competition with online audio, broadcasters will have to continue product innovation.

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.