With the European Commission’s decision to block the H3G/O2 merger annulled and with new H3G management sounding a very pro-consolidation tone, the prospect of mobile operators going from four to three in the UK seems to be back on the cards.

Both H3G/Vodafone and H3G/O2/Virgin Media combinations seem possible although each has its own complexity—existing network sharing arrangements being one of them.

With 5G delays and mounting costs following the decision to ban Huawei, consolidation is increasingly feeling like the most viable option for H3G whose returns are already too low and falling rapidly.

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.

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.

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

Market revenue growth accelerated to 3% in Q4, but it might never reach this level again, being helped by a never-to-be-repeated BT overlapping price rise

With price rises becoming more challenging in general, and superfast pricing under pressure in particular, maintaining/increasing ARPUs is becoming more difficult despite superfast volumes surging

Openreach’s ultrafast roll-out has accelerated, challenging Virgin Media and bringing the prospect of further price premia, but perhaps too late to be of significant benefit in 2019

Comcast’s £30.6 billion acquisition of Sky brings to an end the long-running ownership battle since Disney agreed to tender Fox’s 39% stake to Comcast, also ending the Murdoch Family Trust’s interest in Sky

Comcast’s US domestic cable and global NBCU media businesses complement Sky’s European operation. Sky’s telecoms business is likely to expand, while the TV side should benefit from NBCU’s global distribution might, with greater revenues generated by its original content

Fox’s long-running battle with UK regulators over the public interest dimensions of the proposed Sky acquisition has also ended. Plurality of media is preserved by Comcast’s undertakings to support Sky News for 10 years

Many European telecoms operators are pursuing a fixed/mobile convergence strategy on the pretext that the addition of mobile reduces churn. We see no evidence of churn reduction from this strategy

Discounts required to encourage take-up of fixed/mobile services are often value-destructive, even before competitor reaction: a 10% bundle discount necessitates a 2ppt improvement in churn to wash its face economically. M&A premia on the basis of convergence synergies raise the hurdle even higher

Most UK operators offer very limited discounts on fixed/mobile bundles for now, sensibly focusing on enhanced services. Vodafone is the most aggressive, albeit less so than it is elsewhere. All UK players should hope that it stays this way

Sky posted yet another set of solid results, with revenues up 5% and operating profits up 10%, despite weakening operating metrics in Germany & Austria

Deals with Netflix and Spotify will enhance the customer experience, signalling Sky's confidence in its platform, perhaps a sign of further deals to come

A successful outcome from February’s Premier League auction sealed the prospect of a takeover battle for Sky, with Comcast launching its formal bid this week

Sky H1 results were very solid, maintaining 5% revenue growth and 10% EBITDA growth, with Sky continuing to support a widening product portfolio and more expensive core products with strong cost control and execution

Subscriber volume growth was a little weak at the margin, but this will be helped by all-IP products expanding the economically addressable base in new, and existing, markets 

There remain questions on content, with the outlook for premium football rights uncertain in the UK and Italy, and investment in Originals questionable given a mixed track record, but certainly with upside

 

21st Century Fox’s (21CF) second attempt to acquire Sky comes at a time when the TV world faces mounting online pressure, accompanied by erosion of territorial boundaries in an increasingly global marketplace 

Despite some investor concerns about Sky’s ability to deliver its operating targets over the next five years, we consider the underlying business to be sound and starting to show benefits that derive from its international scale 

21CF’s bid has a strong strategic logic in terms of growing international scale further and evolving a global platform that integrates shared content strengths in sports and entertainment with Sky’s top of class expertise in customer relationships