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.

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.

Vodafone’s revenue performance remains decidedly lacklustre. Italy and Spain are struggling to bounce back, Germany is still languishing, and the UK’s 0.6% service revenue growth is the highlight of the quarter.

Liberty Global’s assets are disappointing both in terms of opening financials (revenues and EBITDA 8% and 12% lower than expected respectively) and outlook (now growing at half the rate at the time of deal announcement and guidance for Germany as a whole to be ‘flattish’).

Vodafone’s guidance for a pickup in revenue growth to more than 1% in Q4 is encouraging but these are very tentative steps forward in challenging times.

European mobile revenues remain decidedly in decline this quarter at -2% – a slight worsening since Q2 as the full force of cuts to intra-EU calls hits 

There are signs that dual-brand strategies may be reaching their useful limit as erstwhile premium customers shift to value

There is scope for some trends to slowly improve from here, although end-of-contract notifications will impact all markets before the end of 2020, with the UK first off the blocks in Q1
 

Vodafone continues to strike a very shareholder-friendly focus and tone but its operating performance remains decidedly muted, with revenue growth up just a touch but EBITDA growth halved

Vodafone’s drive for convergence is still costing it dearly. German mobile ARPU is down 7% and Liberty Global’s assets disappointed on their first consolidation with cashflow enhancement less than half that expected 

Apart from its ill-advised convergence strategy, Vodafone is making many sensible moves and there are indications that its unlimited plans are gaining traction. With leverage tight, pressure is mounting for demonstrable improvements in the financials some time very soon 

Mobile sector returns are low, particularly for smaller-scale operators, with H3G earning less than its cost of capital. Regulatory initiatives, spectrum auctions and 5G look set to worsen this picture as H3G strives to gain viable scale

Back-book pricing is crucial to the returns of fixed challengers. Regulatory intervention is likely to lead to a waterbed effect in the fixed sector and exacerbate challenges in mobile

New entrant business case in full fibre is limited to de facto monopoly opportunities. There is the potential for BT’s returns to increase markedly if it gets full fibre right but new entrants’ inferior economics are unlikely to offer sufficient investor appeal

European mobile revenue trends are not yet improving. Italy is still flat-lining at almost -10%, Spain worsened again, and the UK deteriorated sharply. France is the only good news story

5G rollouts seem somewhat tentative. Indications from the UK that it is leading to a more competitive environment may discourage European operators from exacerbating already challenging markets

Prior year comparables for Southern Europe will be more flattering in the second half of this year although a doubling in the drag from intra EU calls will dampen any recovery

The UK mobile market suffered its worst performance in five years this quarter with Vodafone alone, somewhat inexplicably, bucking the trend

5G capacity is impacting pricing trends with SIM only packages flattening and unlimited packages increasing in popularity and complexity

As the operators invest in solving rural coverage and rolling out 5G, they will continue to be hit by regulation. Out of contract notifications and discounts are next in a long series of assaults

Vodafone’s newfound focus on performance improvement is showing signs of delivering – more on the cost than revenue side. Tower sharing has the potential to ultimately enhance European cashflow by 10% 

The revenue picture is more mixed with churn improving but a very varied operational picture across its major European markets

Although Vodafone highlights the potential for German cable to drive growth post Liberty Global deal completion, their current 0.4% growth in Germany does not give cause for optimism 

European mobile service revenue growth slipped again to -2.0%; its worst performance in four years

Regulation limiting intra-EU call prices could hit hard next quarter – with the UK likely to be hardest hit by up to 6% of revenues and 20% of EBITDA

Excluding the EU-call impact, we see greatest scope for improving trends in Italy and France thanks to easier comps and diminishing competitive intensity