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.

In a likely scenario, the suspended football season could be concluded in empty stadiums in a June and July rush, nevertheless with severe financial consequences.

Pay-TV incumbents like Sky face limited risk—at worst they lose four months of subscription revenue for games already paid for. No-contract services such as DAZN must anticipate a more severe shock. 

To limit disruption, pain will have to be shared across the supply-chain with players’ pay first in line. But fast coordination in a continent-wide, multi-layered industry is challenging; in places, the issue may turn political.
 

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.

Amazon aired its first set of Premier League matches in December, with proxy figures supporting reports that it attracted up to 2 million concurrent viewers.

Amazon Prime penetration soared in Q4, backing up Amazon’s claims that record numbers of new members signed up on the first two days of its football coverage—an encouraging sign at the time of year when ecommerce spend peaks.

As long as Amazon remains principally an online retailer, bidding for premium packages of Premier League rights cannot be justified. In fact, it could retrench from Premier League football altogether after wringing out the value over three seasons.

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.

At the Enders/Deloitte Media & Telecoms 2020 and Beyond conference, players from the sports world came together to discuss the current challenges and opportunities in engaging with fans. There was general consensus that free-to-air broadcasters, pay-TV operators and OTT services all have a role to play in serving sports audiences.

DTC services will enable sports organisations to engage with and learn about their fans, but whilst a complementary DTC service can boost incremental reach beyond broadcasters, rightsowners should remain cognisant of the collective power of bundling.

As viewing habits continue to evolve, fastest of all amongst younger generations, the industry needs to continue to adapt, particularly if it is to have a chance of combatting piracy.

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.

BT had a weak December quarter, with revenue falling 3% and EBITDA 4%, despite a recovery at Openreach, mainly driven by tough competition and regulatory hits, with operating metrics solid but not noticeably improving.

These hits look set to continue, so the company’s hopes of a return to EBITDA growth in 2020/21 probably hinge on brand and service improvements actually becoming visible in operating performance.

A successful full fibre roll-out would be a boon for BT in the longer term, and regulatory developments are headed in the right direction, if not quite there yet. However, its affordability without a dividend cut remains questionable in the current challenging environment.

 

The Government appears set on reducing the scale and scope of the BBC by dismantling the licence fee, and in its place pushing for subscription or making payment voluntary, without any evidence of the likely impact.

DTT – the UK’s largest TV platform – has no conditional access capability, and so implementation would require another costly and long-term switchover.

A voluntary licence fee would inevitably lead to a huge reduction in income. If just those on income-related benefits were not to pay, the shortfall would be over £500 million – in addition to the £250 million the BBC will be funding for over-75s receiving Pension Credit.

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.