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.
 

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.

The UK mobile market was steady this quarter at around -2% ahead of out-of-contract notifications hitting from February.

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.

Elsewhere, there have been green shoots of positivity in the outlook: some good regulatory news; a degree of price inflation; Carphone Warehouse’s retreat is a positive for the operators, and some financial drags will drop out as the year progresses.

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.

The UK mobile market suffered its worst performance in six years this quarter as competition heated up and regulation continued to bite

Vodafone’s unlimited tariffs have proven popular, reaching 5% of its contract base in one quarter, helping to drive its outperformance

Some reprieve is in prospect next quarter, before the impact of out-of-contract notifications and automatic discounts from February, although there is the possibility of pre-emptive moves bringing some of the effects forward 
 

Vodafone continues to strike a very shareholder-friendly focus and tone but its operating performance remains decidedly muted, with revenue growth up just a touch but EBITDA growth halved

Vodafone’s drive for convergence is still costing it dearly. German mobile ARPU is down 7% and Liberty Global’s assets disappointed on their first consolidation with cashflow enhancement less than half that expected 

Apart from its ill-advised convergence strategy, Vodafone is making many sensible moves and there are indications that its unlimited plans are gaining traction. With leverage tight, pressure is mounting for demonstrable improvements in the financials some time very soon 

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

The UK mobile market suffered its worst performance in five years this quarter with Vodafone alone, somewhat inexplicably, bucking the trend

5G capacity is impacting pricing trends with SIM only packages flattening and unlimited packages increasing in popularity and complexity

As the operators invest in solving rural coverage and rolling out 5G, they will continue to be hit by regulation. Out of contract notifications and discounts are next in a long series of assaults

The UK mobile market posted its slowest growth in more than two years this quarter; just 0.5% service revenue growth although net adds were strong and churn was down

ARPU is under considerable pressure thanks to regulation limiting out-of-bundle spend which will exacerbate as the year progresses

Several other negative developments look set to be layered on the pressures this quarter, including a step-up in competitive intensity as 5G launches –  with H3G’s pricing of unlimited data a sign of a resurgence in its aggression

The capacity boost with 5G will be more important than any speed or latency uplift. We estimate a 7-fold increase in mobile capacity in the UK and 13x+ for O2 and H3G

We view fixed mobile substitution products as quite niche although the number of mobile-only households is likely to creep up. mmWave would have the capacity to substitute for fixed but has many hurdles to overcome

Capacity-constraints have tempered competition of late and their removal risks an increase in intensity, especially as H3G views itself as sub-scale – good for policy makers but another challenge to add to the industry’s woes