Cost-of-living pressures and tougher fixed competition drove VMO2’s revenues (just) back into negative territory this quarter.

Synergy benefits, however, delivered impressive EBITDA growth (+5%) with more to come as the Virgin Mobile MVNO shifts on-network next quarter.

We struggle to foresee convergence becoming the company’s next growth driver as trailed by the CEO, but the mobile outlook is fairly robust and there are steps that can be taken to shore up the pressurised fixed business.

Mobile service revenue growth rose to its highest level in over ten years (+4.5%) as a result of the operators’ higher-than-inflation price rises.

BT/EE fared best with broadly-applied, sizeable increases and robust churn while H3G’s more modest increases and later timing led to just a minor pickup in its service revenue growth—in spite of continued strong performance on the subscriber side.

There are some early signs of an increase in consumer bargain-hunting and some payment challenges, with B2B robust for now but with an increasingly rocky outlook.

Market revenue growth continued to accelerate in Q2 to reach 3%, but broadband growth worryingly dipped as the lockdown boost waned.

Differing pricing dynamics (among other factors) led to very different outcomes for the main players, with BT’s growth surging to 7% while VMO2’s revenue stayed in decline.

Underlying trends of weakening broadband growth, keener pricing and customer bargain seeking point to slower growth ahead … until the next price increase.

With the cost-of-living crisis expected to worsen over the coming months, the telecoms operators must walk a fine line—support customers but protect their financial performance in the face of a likely recession and rising costs.

We are likely to see weakness on the B2B side and consumers will look for ways to reduce out-of-bundle spend, seek retention discounts and spin down to lower speed tiers and data bundles, but we expect that dropping services completely will hold limited appeal.

Proactive retention activity and promotional pricing is likely to pay off more than slashing headline prices, and will help to avoid a damaging price war—a far bigger risk to their revenues than spin-down.

While VMO2’s Q1 results were strong, its subscriber additions were weak, particularly on the broadband side, with a seemingly somewhat deliberate go-slow as the year began, but cost-of-living crisis and fibre overbuild may also be factors.

We see considerable scope to ramp up commercial aggression from here given the sizeable tailwinds from price increases, synergy benefits and the migration of the Virgin Mobile MVNO from Vodafone.

We remain sceptical of VMO2’s further network extension ambitions and hope that no news on securing a financial partner is good news, increasing the odds of it pursuing the less risky strategy of expanding its footprint through wholesale.

Whilst we remain sceptical of the churn reduction benefits of fixed/mobile convergence, the pandemic and a more astute approach from the operators is enhancing the case for it in the UK.

Creating the impression of a giveaway whilst minimizing the effective discount is key, as is extracting any loyalty and cost benefits.

Even if well executed, any upsides are likely to be modest. Operators are right to keep discounts to a minimum and to avoid M&A premia predicated on fixed/mobile convergence synergies.

Mobile service revenue growth improved slightly to -1.7% in Q4 as a higher mobility boost outweighed drags from continuing B2B weakness and MTR cuts.

Q1 prospects look mixed but the real turning point remains Q2 when the impact of inflation-linked price rises looks set to boost growth by 2-5ppts—nudging sector growth into positive territory for the first time since 2018.

Ofcom’s market review did not outline a change of stance on investment and consolidation in our view, but its inclination to have fewer consumer-focused initiatives is a welcome development.

The UK mobile operators are increasingly vocal about their concerns regarding the tech giants, namely Apple and Google, encroaching on the mobile connectivity market.

eSIMs enhance the case for the tech giants launching their own MVNOs (such as Google Fi in the US) or, perhaps more realistically and concerningly, becoming gatekeepers to mobile airtime subscriptions.

Many things would need to line up for the tech giants to effect this and the MNOs need to stand as one to ensure that they are not successful. Policy makers should be equally reticent.

VMO2 finished 2021 with muted revenue and EBITDA growth, but stronger subscriber progress, with underlying ARPUs a touch weak but not totally out-of-line with industry trends.

The company has a (justifiably) high level of confidence that this can be turned around in 2022, with a significant boost from price rises, the waning of some temporary effects and backed up by solid subscriber dynamics.

Expecting to not be impacted at all by Openreach’s FTTP roll-out into its current and prospective footprint would however be too confident, and for this reason we remain sceptical of VMO2’s accelerated roll-out ambitions.

Higher overall inflation, together with a bigger mark-up than in previous years for some, is implying significant in-contract price increases for the UK telecoms operators—an average of 7.7% for the mobile operators.

Although we may see a 5-6% short-term boost to mobile service revenue growth from these price increases, new-customer pricing remains crucial and could erode the boost from these in-contract rises entirely.

We have been surprised by Ofcom’s interventions to discourage these price increases. The industry needs all the help it can get to fund next generation 5G and full fibre networks, and these in-contract price increases are no guarantee that prices and revenues overall will start to rise.