BT’s March quarter appeared to have been going reasonably well until COVID-19 hit, with full year guidance still being broadly met, but the new financial year will be hit harder, with BT Sport, SME and new fibre connection revenue particularly vulnerable.

BT’s full fibre roll-out has been temporarily slowed by COVID-19, but it is accelerating its ambitions regardless increasing both its 12-month (4.0m to 4.5m) and longer term (15m to 20m) coverage targets.

BT is suspending and then rebasing its dividend, in part to cover the above costs. While we regard BT’s fibre investment as a good one, investors and analysts alike have been frustrated by a lack of clear multi-year guidance of the benefits, perhaps as a result of BT not wanting to reveal its negotiating hand to the regulator, government and retail partners.

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.

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.

The speeds made possible by full fibre build are unnecessary for most users in the short term, giving limited commercial advantage to those that can offer them, but are likely to prove essential in the medium/long term.

The economics of full-scale, independent alternative networks look very challenging in our view – especially without the support of Sky – although there are some limited arbitrage/cherry-picking opportunities.

The Openreach full fibre model makes economic sense under Ofcom’s proposed regulatory framework, provided it retains the lion’s share of the market, although considerable risks remain.

Market revenue growth fell in Q3 to below 1%, and may drop below zero next quarter as existing customer pricing comes under more pressure

New customer pricing is however rising, and average pricing should rise much further as ultrafast increases in availability and popularity 

Political enthusiasm for full fibre should be welcomed, although some specific plans are likely to do more harm than good if implemented literally
 

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

Comcast’s £30.6 billion acquisition of Sky brings to an end the long-running ownership battle since Disney agreed to tender Fox’s 39% stake to Comcast, also ending the Murdoch Family Trust’s interest in Sky

Comcast’s US domestic cable and global NBCU media businesses complement Sky’s European operation. Sky’s telecoms business is likely to expand, while the TV side should benefit from NBCU’s global distribution might, with greater revenues generated by its original content

Fox’s long-running battle with UK regulators over the public interest dimensions of the proposed Sky acquisition has also ended. Plurality of media is preserved by Comcast’s undertakings to support Sky News for 10 years

Sky posted yet another set of solid results, with revenues up 5% and operating profits up 10%, despite weakening operating metrics in Germany & Austria

Deals with Netflix and Spotify will enhance the customer experience, signalling Sky's confidence in its platform, perhaps a sign of further deals to come

A successful outcome from February’s Premier League auction sealed the prospect of a takeover battle for Sky, with Comcast launching its formal bid this week

UK residential communications market revenue growth fell again to 1.2%, with weakening ARPU growth the main driver. New customer pricing remains flat to down, and existing customers are being increasingly discounted, fuelling the ARPU weakness

High speed broadband adoption is proceeding apace, but the high speed premium is fairly thin, muting the impact on ARPU. Regulated wholesale price cuts from Openreach finalised today and due in April 2018 will not help

Looking forward, the March quarter will benefit from price timing effects at BT and Virgin Media, but we fear that the rest of 2018 will follow the current downward trend and the operators will need to adjust to an ex-growth environment