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.

Growth deteriorated by 3.5ppts, with the UK the weakest and Italy most robust thanks to its early onslaught of COVID-19, usage pickup in a largely pre-pay market and reprieve from a particularly competitive environment.

More operators (Orange and Telecom Italia) cut their guidance at the Q2 results and others (Deutsche Telekom and Iliad) sounded a note of caution regarding the likelihood of them reaching their full year targets.

The outlook for next quarter is mixed—roaming revenues will be even harder hit and competitive intensity is bouncing back but where usage has been depressed it will begin to recover well post-lockdown.

The sector was hit harder than expected by COVID-19 with a 5ppt deterioration in service revenue trends and operators are now sounding a more cautious note.

H3G bucked the trend with improving service revenues thanks to lower exposure to COVID-related impacts and a shift towards indirect distribution—a change in strategy since the end of 2019.

The outlook is better for next quarter as some drags weaken due to the easing of lockdown.  The business market remains particularly vulnerable however as the furlough scheme ends and economic weakness takes hold.

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.

European mobile service revenue growth strengthened very slightly to -0.3% this quarter but, with many positive and negative factors at play, it would be wrong to conclude that we evidenced a convincing improvement in momentum.

Most operators have reiterated their financial guidance in spite of COVID-19 but there is caution from Vodafone and those exposed to sports rights (BT and Telefonica).

The outlook benefits from continued lockdown measures (reducing churn and spin-down) and the annualisation of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter. However, competition in Spain remains intense and the sector is exposed to any economic downturn.