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.
 

BT’s March quarter appeared to have been going reasonably well until COVID-19 hit, with full year guidance still being broadly met, but the new financial year will be hit harder, with BT Sport, SME and new fibre connection revenue particularly vulnerable.

BT’s full fibre roll-out has been temporarily slowed by COVID-19, but it is accelerating its ambitions regardless increasing both its 12-month (4.0m to 4.5m) and longer term (15m to 20m) coverage targets.

BT is suspending and then rebasing its dividend, in part to cover the above costs. While we regard BT’s fibre investment as a good one, investors and analysts alike have been frustrated by a lack of clear multi-year guidance of the benefits, perhaps as a result of BT not wanting to reveal its negotiating hand to the regulator, government and retail partners.

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.

The UK mobile market was steady this quarter at around -2% ahead of out-of-contract notifications hitting from February.

The mobile sector is playing an important role in tackling COVID-19 and is likely to be relatively resilient in the short term with a broadly-neutral financial impact. Longer term it will be exposed to the fortunes of the economy.

Elsewhere, there have been green shoots of positivity in the outlook: some good regulatory news; a degree of price inflation; Carphone Warehouse’s retreat is a positive for the operators, and some financial drags will drop out as the year progresses.

Dixons Carphone (DC) has announced the closure of all of its standalone Carphone Warehouse stores, distributing solely through its Currys PC World stores and online going forward.

Several industry trends have led to these difficulties and DC is pivoting its strategy to better position itself for the new reality.

This move is likely to be a positive one for the mobile operators, especially H3G.

Market revenue growth dipped to below zero in Q4 2019, as pricing pressures bite and smaller players gather share.

2020 is off to a challenging start, with new customer pricing dipping down again, and existing customer pricing under regulatory assault.

With expensive full fibre networks being built, persuading consumers to pay more for the higher speeds they enable will be key.

Virgin Media’s subscriber base fell again in Q4, although strong ARPU growth allowed a slight acceleration in cable revenue growth to 1.8%, and a deceleration in OCF decline to 1%.

Liberty Global group OCF guidance of mid-single digit decline in 2020 is likely to be mirrored at Virgin Media, as regulatory pressure and market competitiveness continue to bite, and mass-market demand for ultrafast remains nascent.

We continue to believe that the best way for Virgin Media to capitalise on full fibre rollouts is to use a wholesale deal with Openreach to expand its footprint to (eventually) nationwide.

BT had a weak December quarter, with revenue falling 3% and EBITDA 4%, despite a recovery at Openreach, mainly driven by tough competition and regulatory hits, with operating metrics solid but not noticeably improving.

These hits look set to continue, so the company’s hopes of a return to EBITDA growth in 2020/21 probably hinge on brand and service improvements actually becoming visible in operating performance.

A successful full fibre roll-out would be a boon for BT in the longer term, and regulatory developments are headed in the right direction, if not quite there yet. However, its affordability without a dividend cut remains questionable in the current challenging environment.