Mobile revenue growth improved slightly to -3% this quarter, primarily thanks to a weakening in the drag from the loss of roaming.

European MNOs are guiding to improving trends in 2021—broadly stable revenues and EBITDA vs declines of 5-7% in 2020. This bodes well for guidance from the UK players around mid-May.

However, the outlook is far from rosy, with Q1 2021 still very challenging ahead of an annualisation of the pandemic drags from the June quarter. Growth prospects remain contingent on the resumption of travel and the economic climate.

The sector rebounded slightly in the quarter to December thanks to a seasonal improvement in the roaming drag, although the partial lockdown tempered the recovery.

We await imminent news on spectrum trading, and there may also be some licence fee reductions as a consequence of the lower prices in the recent 5G auction.

While the sector is likely to continue to struggle into Q1, the outlook is much brighter thereafter thanks to the annualisation and even reversal of some lockdown effects, and to higher price increases from the spring.

Ofcom’s second 5G auction concluded with proceeds half those of historic levels for a number of reasons.

The outcome is positive for all operators with no major surprises. The results imply a much more level playing field for the UK mobile operators than in the past.

A relief for the operators but proceeds for the exchequer will be disappointing, and ALF renegotiation may reduce their revenue steam further.

The wave of deal-making in the European towers sector is driven by cash-strapped telcos seeking a form of sale and leaseback financing.

While the operators are incentivised to provide a medium-term growth trajectory for these towers companies, sustainability of that growth is more questionable, especially as 5G will not require additional base stations.

Cellnex continues to insinuate itself into the UK market with its most recent deal signaling the ultimate unwinding of the MBNL JV. Further UK towers consolidation seems a long way off but could facilitate, or indeed be facilitated by, consolidation at the MNO level.

UK mobile operators seem set to offer EU roaming on selected bundles only—a welcome new form of price differentiation.

This move is economically efficient and particularly helpful for MVNOs for whom the erstwhile arrangements were particularly punitive.

We don't envisage a return to the days of super-normal returns from roaming, but it is nonetheless conducive to much-needed price inflation in the sector.

Mobile growth improved very marginally to -3.6% this quarter as roaming revenues were harder hit and competitive intensity bounced back, but usage recovered from the lockdowns in Q2 and cuts to intra-EU calls were annualised.

Italy’s fortunes took a turn for the worse as roaming hit particularly hard and Iliad resurged. After a spate of downgrades to the outlook last quarter, there were some tentative upgrades in Q3 although the tone remains cautious.

The diminished drag from roaming is the primary positive driver from here. Although lockdowns of some degree are in place in Q4, their impact will be less severe than those in Q2.
 

Service revenue declines stabilised at -7% this quarter with a myriad of factors at play: roaming worsening, the end of lockdown taking some pressure off, B2B a mixed bag, and the annualisation of cuts to intra-EU calls.

Ofcom’s second 5G auction will be a focus in January. We expect selective bidding, proceeds of up to £2.7bn, and some wrangling over spectrum trading.

The outlook is better from here as the drag from roaming eases, in-contract price rises step up from the spring, Carphone Warehouse diminishes as a factor in the market, and the prospect of consolidation is still on the table.

COVID, potential consolidation, implications for ALF pricing and non-contiguous blocks have conspired to make the forthcoming second 5G spectrum auction a highly complicated affair.

H3G seems unlikely to bid in a meaningful way for the 5G spectrum (3.6GHz+) but is expected to share the 700MHz band with EE. With the three leading operators likely to split the 3.6GHz+ spectrum between them, proceeds of £1bn-£2.7bn are conceivable.

The non-contiguous nature of the spectrum blocks on offer risks the operators ending up with fragmented holdings in spite of Ofcom’s endeavours to encourage trading—an efficiency loss of up to 20%.

There are some reasons to be cheerful about Vodafone right now—small nuggets of encouragement in its H1 results and the prospect of some market repair in the UK. Annual in-contract price rises of CPI + 3.9% across the UK mobile sector could provide very valuable support.

German fixed momentum is a low-light of its H1 results with growth of just 0.6% in spite of heightened broadband demand and in contrast to the 5% growth rate of the Liberty Global assets at time of acquisition.

The IPO of Vodafone’s towers business remains imperative to maintaining its leverage targets and dividend. We estimate that it will need to sell at least 30% of equity and realise a hefty multiple in challenging market conditions.

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.