European mobile growth was essentially zero year-on-year—a significant improvement thanks to annualisation of the pandemic but there is little evidence of the reversal of its negative impacts.

Italy saw the biggest improvement in its underlying trend as the pandemic continued to suppress Iliad’s momentum, while elevated competitive tension in Spain and France ate into their annualisation boost.

Mobility and flight data suggests that Q3 will evidence a bigger boost from renewed travel than in Q2—positive for roaming revenues—but that the improvement in mobility will be weaker than in the June quarter.

VMO2’s inaugural results reinforced the company’s focus on profitability with EBITDA growth of 6% and record margins. Flat revenues year-on-year benefited from the annualisation of the COVID-19 hit but incorporated little by way of rebound.

Much remains to be seen in terms of strategy but indications thus far are reassuring with B2B a clear focus for revenue growth, and the benefits of direct distribution feeding through to profitability.

The company’s decision to build an overlay full fibre network is a bold, but smart, move—allaying justified obsolescence fears about its network, enhancing strategic flexibility, and reducing its cost base.

With the O2/Virgin Media merger now approved, VodafoneZiggo in the Netherlands may hold clues to their likely approach to the market although their starting point is not quite the same and some lessons may have been learned.

We remain sceptical of the merits of discount-led convergence strategies. The pandemic, however, has eased the route to cross-selling and strengthened the case for convergent technologies.

Virgin Media’s network strategy will be key with significant risks from wholesaling their cable network and from expanding their footprint.

As we expected, UK mobile operators are beginning to introduce EU roaming tariffs, with EE taking the first major leap in the hope that others will follow.

This move is somewhat inevitable as current arrangements leave operators exposed to up to €75 of monthly wholesale charges.

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.

The last lockdown caused service revenues to dip again to -7% in spite of some easing of roaming pressure and the annualisation of some early pandemic weakness.

The heralded, elevated in-contract price rises will fail to drive higher growth this year due to lower inflation—we estimate zero impact at BT/EE relative to 2020 and a reduction in revenue momentum of around 0.5ppts for each of the other operators.

The annualisation of the first lockdown is the most meaningful upside from here with a boost of around 5-7ppts possible. However, some pandemic upsides will also unwind, notably lower churn and enhanced B2B demand with the latter vulnerable to the end of furlough support and the economy.

The highlight of what seems set to be O2’s final results as a standalone company is OIBDA growth of almost 8% in spite of a drag from weaker net adds.

It has also been a good quarter for O2 strategically with preliminary merger approval and contiguous 5G spectrum although that may be matched by its peers in subsequent deals given H3G’s openness to negotiation.

The annualisation of COVID impacts as well as an improving mobility picture will provide a significant boost to trends, although the roaming drag seems unlikely to reverse any time soon and O2’s relative growth will suffer from lower in-contract price rises than peers this spring.

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.