EE has announced the ending of its relationship with Carphone Warehouse, hot on the heels of a similar announcement from O2 a few months ago and the recent closure of Carphone Warehouse high-street stores.

Representing less than a third of the market gross adds, Carphone Warehouse is going to struggle to be viewed as a true comparison distribution channel. Its future probably lies elsewhere.

The closure of Carphone Warehouse stores, and now the diminished appeal of its website/off-high street stores, is positive for the operators.

Growth deteriorated by 3.5ppts, with the UK the weakest and Italy most robust thanks to its early onslaught of COVID-19, usage pickup in a largely pre-pay market and reprieve from a particularly competitive environment.

More operators (Orange and Telecom Italia) cut their guidance at the Q2 results and others (Deutsche Telekom and Iliad) sounded a note of caution regarding the likelihood of them reaching their full year targets.

The outlook for next quarter is mixed—roaming revenues will be even harder hit and competitive intensity is bouncing back but where usage has been depressed it will begin to recover well post-lockdown.

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.

Along with the rest of the mobile market, O2’s results were harder-hit by COVID than expected, with service and total revenues down by 9% and 4% respectively.

O2 estimates an 8ppt drag on revenues from COVID—much higher than the 1.6ppt Vodafone figure—a question of definition and business mix. The overall COVID impact on the market looks to be tentatively easing from next quarter and O2 should fare relatively well in that bounce-back.

The decision to terminate the Carphone Warehouse relationship will cause some short-term technical drags on performance but creates an opportunity to improve profitability. Reopening of O2 stores post lockdown will help to compensate for forfeiting Carphone as a route to market.

Vodafone’s performance this quarter was hit both by COVID and an underlying deterioration in its operational momentum—disappointing given regulatory easing and easier comparables.

Vodafone’s guidance has been more prudent than most going into this pandemic and these results support that cautious stance. Whether it’s a case of Vodafone underperforming or the sector being less resilient than expected will emerge over the coming weeks.

The IPO of Vodafone’s towers business is imperative to maintaining its leverage targets and dividend. It will need to sell a chunky slice of equity and realise a hefty multiple in challenging market conditions.  The profile of the asset for sale will help but it all remains very finely balanced.

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.

European mobile service revenue growth strengthened very slightly to -0.3% this quarter but, with many positive and negative factors at play, it would be wrong to conclude that we evidenced a convincing improvement in momentum.

Most operators have reiterated their financial guidance in spite of COVID-19 but there is caution from Vodafone and those exposed to sports rights (BT and Telefonica).

The outlook benefits from continued lockdown measures (reducing churn and spin-down) and the annualisation of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter. However, competition in Spain remains intense and the sector is exposed to any economic downturn.

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.
 

Vodafone’s financial metrics appear to be slowly ticking up and it is making some progress in narrowing its performance gap to peers. Signs that it may be moving away from a discount-led convergence strategy in Germany are very positive.

Organic EBITDA growth is highly flattered by one-off items and, as is frequently the case, even this headline EBITDA growth for FY20 is wiped out by currency depreciation in ‘Rest of World’ countries.

This lack of real progress on EBITDA and FCF and the muted outlook for both exacerbates Vodafone’s tight leverage position. There seems very little prospect of it unsettling the O2/Virgin Media JV in the UK.
 

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.