O2’s merger with Virgin Media seems more of a marriage of convenience than a determined pursuit of synergy benefits. With the owners effectively selling their stakes, the combination will be well-advised to exercise caution in any convergence strategy that they pursue.

O2’s results this quarter appear to be fairly decent with all metrics ticking up slightly, although caution is advised in interpretation and pressure on ARPU has not eased.

With the mobile sector reasonably well insulated from COVID-19 and O2 likely to fare better than most in out-of-contract discounts, the short-term outlook is relatively robust, but competitive and macroeconomic vulnerabilities remain on the horizon.

European mobile service revenue growth improved by 1ppt to -1.2% primarily as a consequence of diminished competitive intensity in France. Trends elsewhere were largely flat.

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.

There are reasons to believe that the improvement in trends evidenced in the last quarter may continue as churn reduction takes the heat out of some markets, cuts to intra-EU calls annualises out and for most countries, end-of-contract notifications will only begin to impact in 2021.
 

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
 

With pay-TV competition faltering, UEFA is aiming to stimulate demand for 2021-24 TV rights with early auctions, a possible relaunch of FTA broadcasts, and even, unrealistically, by considering an online service of its own

In the recently completed UK auction, facing no major threat from Sky, BT kept the rights at an almost flat price – probably missing a cost saving opportunity

In the upcoming auctions on the Continent, with former buyers such as SFR, Mediaset and Vodafone having cut back on premium sports, the major platforms’ bids will probably be unchallenged

In spite of total revenue growth of 4%, O2’s service revenue growth took another step down to -3% this quarter, consistent with the worsening environment and EE’s results 

Its true performance is likely better than reported as IFRS15 has an artificially dampening effect on its service revenue as a consequence of O2’s Custom Plans, and is something of a boost to its impressive 6% EBITDA growth

O2 needs to continue to pedal hard to keep ahead of this challenging environment – with little let-up on the regulatory front, more aggression from Vodafone and H3G, and a potential regulatory hit to its Custom Plans 
 

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

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

After a period of significant outperformance, O2’s Q1 results reverted to sector average revenue growth with ARPU down by 3% and all of the growth coming from ‘other’ revenues

Regulation limiting out-of-bundle spending has been a significant drag which will continue to worsen

A more competitive market and a punishing regulatory outlook will make it very challenging to sustain 2018 growth trends as this year progresses

European mobile service revenue growth dropped to -1.3% – its lowest level in three years – particularly disappointing as growth should be bouncing back post-EU roaming tariff cuts

Having enjoyed relatively favourable dynamics in 2018, the UK and Germany are facing marked changes in momentum from here

Regulation limiting intra-EU call prices could hit hard – up to 6% of revenues and 20% of EBITDA in the UK, although other EU countries may be less exposed due to lower tariffs currently

The combination of 5G, AI, IoT and big data were evangelised at MWC as generating massive scope for the transformation of multiple industries. 

That much is probably true, but it is the tech and consultancy companies who will likely receive the benefits, with connectivity revenue likely to be modest.

For the operators, 5G brings more capacity much needed for hungry smartphone users, and perhaps the opportunity to transform themselves into a leaner operating model.