Virgin Media’s lockdown subscriber surge continued into Q3, as working-from-home highlights the importance of the faster speeds its network can offer.

ARPU is more challenged, and will get worse next quarter given its forgone price rise, but price rises are back in fashion in the industry, so this problem is likely to prove temporary.

Openreach’s full fibre remains a medium-term threat, but the company is rightly taking advantage while its network superiority remains, with momentum firmly in its favour for now.

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.

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.

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.

The press has reported on an imminent merger of O2 and Virgin Media (UK). This is not likely to be driven by the pursuit of revenue synergies as dis-synergies are more likely if the brands are merged.

Cost synergies are real, albeit a bit tangential. However, in a mature market even modest synergies are worth pursuing.

A full regulatory review may be required but approval is likely. Market impact is somewhat nuanced, with the benefit of a distracted competitor short-term and a larger but still rational operator ultimately.

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.

Market revenue growth dipped to below zero in Q4 2019, as pricing pressures bite and smaller players gather share.

2020 is off to a challenging start, with new customer pricing dipping down again, and existing customer pricing under regulatory assault.

With expensive full fibre networks being built, persuading consumers to pay more for the higher speeds they enable will be key.