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.

BT had a weak December quarter, with revenue falling 3% and EBITDA 4%, despite a recovery at Openreach, mainly driven by tough competition and regulatory hits, with operating metrics solid but not noticeably improving.

These hits look set to continue, so the company’s hopes of a return to EBITDA growth in 2020/21 probably hinge on brand and service improvements actually becoming visible in operating performance.

A successful full fibre roll-out would be a boon for BT in the longer term, and regulatory developments are headed in the right direction, if not quite there yet. However, its affordability without a dividend cut remains questionable in the current challenging environment.

 

BT suffered a weak Q2 with revenue and (particularly) EBITDA declines accelerating, but this was mainly down to timing (particularly at Openreach, which will likely recover in Q3), with the company confident in maintaining full year expectations

BT’s fixed broadband business enjoyed some recovery as the pricing environment improves, but will suffer another price timing bump next quarter, and its mobile business is suffering from a tough market environment that is unlikely to improve in the short term

The company is busy re-branding, re-positioning and transforming, but the outlook for football rights costs and fibre roll-out regulation will dominate in the short term, and further bumps (such as the Virgin MVNO contract loss) may emerge

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

BT’s divisions had contrasting fortunes in Q1 2019/20, with Consumer revenue growth sharply turning negative but Openreach external revenue growth accelerating to 10%, leaving the Group level unchanged at -1% and EBITDA on course to meet guidance.

Consumer was hit by several regulatory and pricing factors mainly affecting mobile, and the short-term outlook remains tough, with a number of legacy pricing issues across fixed and mobile still to be resolved.

Openreach is reaping the benefit of previous price declines annualizing out, allowing it to take full advantage of higher speed demand, and due to its full fibre roll-out this dynamic could persevere for years.
 

BT is accelerating its ‘full fibre’ rollout, likely due to a combination of a successful build to date, very promising regulatory developments, and (let’s not deny it) worrying competitor build plans

Full year results were a little weak versus consensus, with guidance a little soft as well, leading to questions of how this can be funded, particularly the roll-out acceleration from 2021/22 to cover half the country by the mid-2020s

Whatever the funding mechanism, we regard the investment as sound, with BT’s planned operational transformation also promising but potentially requiring further upfront investment

BT’s Q3 results were a little mixed, with mobile particularly weak, but the company remains on track to meet/exceed its (fairly conservative) guidance for the current year, and hit (modest) consensus expectations for 2019/20

Openreach was very weak at the headline level (-9%), but stripping out an accounting effect and internal revenue the division grew by 2% by our estimates despite significant price cuts, and full fibre roll-out is progressing well

While Openreach should accelerate this year, Consumer will be hit by a price rise holiday and slowing mobile, with investors likely having to wait for existing sports rights contracts to play out to see significant profitability improvement

Audiobooks are growing fast, driven by smartphone adoption and better supply, as well as interest from people who don’t usually buy books, such as young men

The sector is dominated by the presence of Audible, Amazon’s audiobook publisher/retailer, which has driven growth of audiobooks but put publishers under pressure. Its strategy is a lesson in Amazon’s approach to media

Audio is an opportunity to sell to new customers, but publishers must acquire and use rights responsibly, and experiment while not letting the audio tail wag the print dog

UK residential communications market revenue growth strengthened in Q1, but this was entirely driven by an overlapping price increase from BT, and the decline in market volume growth continues

Continued pressure on both subscriber volume growth and ARPU has led to diverging strategies, with most operators focused on sustaining ARPU, but TalkTalk chasing volumes at the low end, with the former approach currently proving more successful

Looking forward, the benefit of BT’s price rise will fall away completely next quarter and market revenue growth will likely resume its downward trend, but the nadir may be within sight if the flight to quality persists at most operators