The boost from annualising the COVID-19 hit dissipated this quarter with service revenues flat-lining at –2.5%. The year-on-year mobility boost weakened and pandemic upsides of lower churn, cost savings and B2B demand unwound.

Q4 looks mixed with an improving year-on-year mobility boost but further unwinding of some pandemic upsides. Spring 2022 has the potential to be the long-awaited panacea with price rises of up to 8% and the prospect of renewed roaming revenues.

The operators continue to seek sources of market repair through price rises (to compensate for regulatory intervention elsewhere) and consolidation—but with little visible support from policymakers as yet.

VMO2’s half-year results were something of a mixed bag with some decent revenue momentum but a big hit to EBITDA as COVID cost-savings unwound and company full year guidance suggests a further deterioration in Q4.

Volt, VMO2’s convergence product, is well-conceived and executed. With a following wind it should avoid the pitfall of revenue dilution whilst potentially offering some upsides.

The company remains in strategic limbo awaiting an outcome on its wholesale discussions with Sky. This will determine not just fibre expansion plans but also branding and co-marketing of its central products.

Press reports that Sky is in advanced talks to co-invest in Virgin Media O2’s upgrade of its cable network to full fibre are something of a surprise, with a host of issues for both parties to carefully consider

The muted deal would be somewhat negative for BT (although limited by Sky’s c.15% market share in VMO2 areas and regulatory protections/upsides). It is, however, a stark reminder of the precarious economics of alternative networks such as CityFibre

Whether this makes VMO2 more likely to extend its network further is a more critical issue, certainly for BT

 

European mobile growth was essentially zero year-on-year—a significant improvement thanks to annualisation of the pandemic but there is little evidence of the reversal of its negative impacts.

Italy saw the biggest improvement in its underlying trend as the pandemic continued to suppress Iliad’s momentum, while elevated competitive tension in Spain and France ate into their annualisation boost.

Mobility and flight data suggests that Q3 will evidence a bigger boost from renewed travel than in Q2—positive for roaming revenues—but that the improvement in mobility will be weaker than in the June quarter.

The two-part nature of the UK 5G auctions has thrown up various issues, with non-contiguous spectrum blocks proving the most challenging to resolve.

The Annual Licence Fees (ALFs) attached to H3G’s spectrum are the crucial stumbling block in spectrum trading negotiations, creating a level of uncertainty which is not conducive to striking a sensible deal.

Ofcom has a crucial role to play in securing an efficient outcome and time is very much of the essence.

The bounceback from COVID is yet to be evidenced in UK mobile as there was no improvement in service revenue trends this quarter beyond the simple annualisation of the pandemic hit.

More mobility and international travel will be crucial tailwinds. Q3 travel rates are only slightly higher than a year ago, limiting the near-term upside. Some pandemic boosts such as lower churn and higher B2B demand will also unwind somewhat.

Spring 2022 looks set to be a turning point for the sector with price increases of 6-7% in the offing on the basis of recent inflation rates, and the potential for renewed roaming revenues, even from Europe.

VMO2’s inaugural results reinforced the company’s focus on profitability with EBITDA growth of 6% and record margins. Flat revenues year-on-year benefited from the annualisation of the COVID-19 hit but incorporated little by way of rebound.

Much remains to be seen in terms of strategy but indications thus far are reassuring with B2B a clear focus for revenue growth, and the benefits of direct distribution feeding through to profitability.

The company’s decision to build an overlay full fibre network is a bold, but smart, move—allaying justified obsolescence fears about its network, enhancing strategic flexibility, and reducing its cost base.

With the O2/Virgin Media merger now approved, VodafoneZiggo in the Netherlands may hold clues to their likely approach to the market although their starting point is not quite the same and some lessons may have been learned.

We remain sceptical of the merits of discount-led convergence strategies. The pandemic, however, has eased the route to cross-selling and strengthened the case for convergent technologies.

Virgin Media’s network strategy will be key with significant risks from wholesaling their cable network and from expanding their footprint.

As we expected, UK mobile operators are beginning to introduce EU roaming tariffs, with EE taking the first major leap in the hope that others will follow.

This move is somewhat inevitable as current arrangements leave operators exposed to up to €75 of monthly wholesale charges.

We don't envisage a return to the days of super-normal returns from roaming, but it is nonetheless conducive to much-needed price inflation in the sector.

Mobile growth dipped again to -3.3% for what we hope is the final time as widespread lockdowns impacted paid-for usage in most countries.

BT and Vodafone joined the other European MNOs in guiding to improving trends in 2021—expecting EBITDA momentum to be 7-10ppts better—slightly ahead of the 5-7ppts for the European operators.

We may even see positive revenue growth next quarter thanks to the simple annualisation of the first lockdown, with the UK the most to gain and Germany and Italy the least. Investment is creeping up too with higher capex guidance and better 5G momentum.