European mobile service revenue growth recovered to nearly reach positive growth in Q3, improving a whole percentage point over the previous quarter to -0.2%

The main driver of the improvement was continued ‘more for more’ price increases combined with a lack of price wars at the lower end, although the current detente does not feel very stable. Furthermore, the pressure on growth from the general trend towards SIM-only and the consequent lower contract revenue looks unlikely to alter

Revenue growth of around zero as almost achieved this quarter is sufficient for the operators to grow the bottom line, but not to transform their network coverage in the style envisaged by 5G enthusiasts – more substantial growth is needed to cover the costs of such a step-change

UK mobile service revenue growth improved in Q3 to -0.8% from -1.7% in the previous quarter, a welcome turnaround after three quarters of declining growth. Pricing remains firm, data volume growth remains robust, and some of the one-off factors affecting the previous quarter have dropped out

Sky Mobile soft-launched at the end of 2016, and it is taking an aggressive approach with a very deep MVNO technical model with substantial fixed costs, a high advertising budget and ambitious internal subscriber targets. To date the fixed MVNOs have not had a substantial impact on the MNOs, targeting a customer base that is non-core, but with SIM-only on the rise this may change

Looking at recently released network performance statistics, the impact of spectrum disparities is clear, with EE both able to offer faster speeds nationwide due to its large blocks of 4G spectrum, and offer much faster speeds in London. EE also has a lead in geographic coverage, and is planning to push its coverage much further, creating a challenge for the other operators to keep up

European mobile service revenue growth worsened slightly in Q2, dropping to -1.2% after three consecutive quarters at -0.8%. Southern Europe significantly outperformed the North, reversing the regional trend of recent years

EU roaming rate cuts and the increase in SIM-only subscriptions were the two main negative, albeit temporary, factors with the former particularly impacting northern European operators with heavy roaming exposure and the latter more varied in its impact across the EU5

Mobile service revenue growth was thus quite robust given these factors, helped by price firming in a number of markets. Looking forward, while the negative factors are likely to continue in the short-term they will drop out in two years in the case of roaming cuts, and SIM-only, whose impact is mostly profit-neutral to operators, will also reach an equilibrium in due course, and the market's overall resilience is encouraging

UK mobile service revenue growth marginally improved in Q1, to 0.5% from 0.3% in the previous quarter, with the market now having been stuck at a modest but positive growth level for two full years. The improvement was driven by contract ARPU growth improvements, across all of the operators, partially mitigated by a drop in contract subscriber volume growth, perhaps influenced by a weak market for new handsets

Looking forward, the competitive outlook is very uncertain; while EE is looking to increase its network lead, whether it wishes to use this to boost share or pricing is unclear, O2’s future owners may have different strategic priorities to the status quo, H3G will likely take innovative approaches, which are tautologically hard to predict, and Vodafone UK remains Vodafone’s only large European market without a scale position in consumer broadband, a situation it is likely to want to rectify in due course

While before the Brexit referendum, we would have concluded that the outlook for market-wide revenue growth was reasonably positive in spite of this, with ever-strong data volume growth contrasting with constrained spectrum supply, the extra economic uncertainty due to the referendum result puts this at least partly in doubt. The mobile market is likely to be relatively insensitive to macroeconomic conditions given its increasingly essential nature, but there is some sensitivity, particularly if population growth slows or reverses. Our base case assumption is a dip in growth of 1-2ppts in 2017 as a consequence of Brexit

Our survey results highlighted disconnects between operator ambition and consumer perceptions across customer loyalty, network performance and quad play, with noteworthy implications for future competitive performance. O2 in particular benefited from strong branding which yielded network confidence and loyalty above that of top network investors, EE and Vodafone

Convergence prospects continue to look supplier driven with consumers reporting little interest in quad play packages even when offered with significant bundle discounts. Recent advertising campaigns have sought to change consumer perceptions of a dichotomy in mobile and fixed broadband provisioning which, if successful, will be to the benefit of all quad play hopefuls

The mobile usage disparities between 16-24 year olds and 55+ users are stark, for instance near 100% of mobile users aged 16-24 own a smartphone while for those 55+, this falls to just over half. The implications are strong for service providers in all manner of industries who are seeing new (younger) users come to market that bear little resemblance to the traditional users around whom much of the operational model is typically built

European mobile service revenue growth was flat at -0.8%, while underlying country movements were somewhat more dramatic. The key highlights were Italy returning to positive growth driven by pricing stability, and France showing worsening growth decline for the first time in over two years impacted by challenger telco pricing cuts

An assessment of these challenger telcos highlights a somewhat precarious position, as continued price aggression yields diminishing incremental gains, and they all remain some way from gaining the scale to achieve profitability

The only incentive for challengers to remain aggressive is as an encouragement for their competitors to buy them; increasing regulatory hurdles to consolidation would remove even this incentive, leaving price increases as their only rational route to profitability

UK mobile service revenue growth dipped down in Q4, but at least remained still just positive at 0.3%. The dip was driven by contract ARPU weakness at the largest three operators, mitigated by strong ARPU growth at the smallest operator H3G

Looking forward, the sources of weakness (growth of SIM-only and tariff policy adjustments) look more temporary than the sources of growth (data volume growth filling up capacity). SIM-only is likely to hit a natural ceiling, whereas data volume growth has no ceiling in sight and the scope for network capacity expansion is limited

With CK Hutchison currently negotiating with the European Commission in regards to the fate of the H3G and O2 merger, there is a high level of uncertainty on the future of the structure of the UK mobile market. Merging the two networks would generate extra capacity and capability, likely increasing competitive intensity, but the precise form this would take is unclear, as is the future of the brands and the identity of the capacity MVNO recipient(s)

Ofcom is encouraging competitive investment in local access networks using BT’s ducts and poles; in our view this is very unlikely to happen on a large scale, due to both the lack of spare capacity in existing plant and the generally poor prospective economics of a third local access network in the UK

Ofcom’s favoured model for Openreach is an enhanced version of the current structural separation model, and this is most likely to be reached via a negotiated settlement with BT; this and a number of other proposed measures, if implemented, will increase Openreach’s costs, and these costs will be re-charged to both BT’s retail division and its DSL competitors

Ofcom remains keen to retain four mobile network operators, in spite of clear evidence that at most three are viable at current retail price levels, and it is keen to implement a number of interventionist consumer protection measures that suggest it is keen on competition in theory, but not so much in practice

H3G and O2 are planning for their UK merger to create a mobile-only operator that leads the market in network quality and capacity, taking a contrary approach to the current trend of fixed/mobile convergent strategies

The merger would ease the severe spectral capacity constraints currently faced by both operators, and ease the scale disadvantage suffered by H3G ever since its launch in 2003, allowing a much stronger long term competitor

Post-merger, the UK mobile market will likely end up just as competitive as it is now, with pricing pressure actually more likely to continue into the medium term, and plenty of opportunities and threats for all the main players as the environment re-aligns