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.

EE has announced the ending of its relationship with Carphone Warehouse, hot on the heels of a similar announcement from O2 a few months ago and the recent closure of Carphone Warehouse high-street stores.

Representing less than a third of the market gross adds, Carphone Warehouse is going to struggle to be viewed as a true comparison distribution channel. Its future probably lies elsewhere.

The closure of Carphone Warehouse stores, and now the diminished appeal of its website/off-high street stores, is positive for the operators.

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.

Market revenue fell 6% in Q1 2020, largely due to lack of sports revenue (which will bounce back), but backbook pricing woes also hit.

Broadband volume growth accelerated though, and may accelerate further as supply constraints ease.

The increase in working-from-home may also enhance demand for ultrafast, the best hope for a return to industry revenue growth.

Virgin Media had a surge in customer net adds in Q2, with its best numbers since 2017, taking advantage of Openreach’s (and Sky’s) pause in in-home installations to take market share, and also benefitting from resurgent market demand.

Revenue was suppressed by the lack of sport, but this was fully mitigated by a cost reduction from Sky and BT, with EBITDA growth actually improving thanks to this and some other (mostly temporary) cost reductions.

The marketing of Openreach’s full fibre products will build in the coming months, which will likely benefit Virgin Media for as long as their availability remains low, but will become a greater threat over time.

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.

The slow recovery in UK mobile continued this quarter with a 1ppt improvement in service revenue trends.

In spite of operator guidance to the negative, the sector is likely to remain relatively resilient in the face of COVID-19 in the short term, with its various impacts affecting operators differently depending on their business mix.

The outlook is relatively robust with the impact of some regulatory initiatives muted by lockdown measures and the annualization of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter.
 

Virgin Media’s Q1 financial performance was in line with its subdued outlook, with its key problem being a lack of demand (yet) for the ultrafast services that only it can widely provide.

CV-19 has delayed the marketing of ultrafast services from competitors, likely suppressing demand more generally; in the longer term however, the working-from-home experience will likely help drive adoption.

Virgin Media still has to solve the problem of alleviating the long-term threat of full fibre builds negating its network advantage; we believe that the best answer is to expand to a nationwide service via wholesale, and the merger with the nationwide O2 reinforces this.

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.