TalkTalk’s latest results were mixed at best, with ARPU and revenue growth improving off a low last quarter, but net adds worsening, EBITDA falling sharply and full year EBITDA guidance suspended.

Its outlook remains challenging, with the move to high speed still a drag on EBITDA, and the migration to ultrafast a further (even greater) challenge, although this brings opportunity as well, especially if the company can move away from its discount brand focus.

Its prospective new owners highlight the need to invest in brand, systems, and full fibre capabilities to meet this challenge, but it is not clear where the money to do this is coming from, and it is also not clear if the desire to ‘reposition the brand’ includes a move upmarket.

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.

Market revenue fell 6% in Q1 2020, largely due to lack of sports revenue (which will bounce back), but backbook pricing woes also hit.

Broadband volume growth accelerated though, and may accelerate further as supply constraints ease.

The increase in working-from-home may also enhance demand for ultrafast, the best hope for a return to industry revenue growth.

TalkTalk started its new financial year with revenue growth declining to -8% in Q1, although this is partly lockdown-related, and costs have also declined as churn plummeted.

While backbook pricing continues to be a challenge, new customer pricing continues to firm, which makes its expectation of stable/growing EBITDA for FY2020/21 possible albeit still difficult.

The company expects to launch full fibre products from Openreach imminently, and from CityFibre before the end of the year, with the adoption and eventual economics of these crucial to its medium and long-term future.

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.

TalkTalk grew EBITDA by 10% in 2019/20, an impressive cost cutting driven result, with revenue and gross margin falling as the company struggles with the move to high speed.

The company is cautious on 2020/21, indicating only stable EBITDA citing CV-19 related pressures, although the lockdown has also brought much lower churn and an improving price environment.

The move to full fibre could prove challenging in the longer term, but it also brings an opportunity to rebrand away from a pure price focus, the source of much of TalkTalk’s challenges.

Demand for telecoms capacity is booming, and the networks can (broadly) cope, with the increase primarily in off-peak demand. However, as the crisis continues, maintaining resilience becomes more challenging.

In the short term, the demand for ample, reliable connectivity coupled with reduced churn will add resilience to operator financials, although there may be significant weak spots especially in business markets.

However, as the crisis goes on, the pressure on capacity and network maintenance may grow, and the impact of the dramatic economic slowdown on consumers and businesses will also put pressure on financials.

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.