The sector was hit harder than expected by COVID-19 with a 5ppt deterioration in service revenue trends and operators are now sounding a more cautious note.

H3G bucked the trend with improving service revenues thanks to lower exposure to COVID-related impacts and a shift towards indirect distribution—a change in strategy since the end of 2019.

The outlook is better for next quarter as some drags weaken due to the easing of lockdown.  The business market remains particularly vulnerable however as the furlough scheme ends and economic weakness takes hold.

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 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 
 

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 TV advertising market, in decline since mid-2016, could benefit from a liberalisation of advertising minutage if Ofcom reviews COSTA and decides to make changes

Broadcasters could gain from the flexibility to devote up to 20% of peaktime minutes to advertising under the EU’s revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD)

Ofcom could also level the playing field between PSB and non-PSB channels, although more minutes of advertising on TV is unlikely to inverse the medium’s decline

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 UK government is now consulting on a wider TV advertising ban until 9pm for food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), to combat childhood obesity

TV and TV advertising are not the cause of children being overweight or obese (O+O). Policy change in this area should inform and educate parents and young children, as they have in Leeds and Amsterdam

With 64% of the UK population being O+O, obesity is a complex societal issue requiring a multifaceted approach. The evidence from existing rules, and plummeting TV viewing amongst children, says that further restrictions on TV advertising will be ineffective in curbing the rise of obesity in the UK