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
 

Virgin Media had a challenging quarter, with its early price rise driving weak subscriber figures and product spin-down, resulting in reduced revenue growth and an accelerated OCF decline

The market environment remains challenging with very competitive pricing on superfast and little push for ultrafast, but superfast pricing is easing and competitors’ ultrafast pushes should accelerate in 2020

Full fibre roll-outs remain a threat and an opportunity in almost equal measure, with Virgin Media’s positioning likely to be clarified as the regulatory mist clears over the next year

BT suffered a weak Q2 with revenue and (particularly) EBITDA declines accelerating, but this was mainly down to timing (particularly at Openreach, which will likely recover in Q3), with the company confident in maintaining full year expectations

BT’s fixed broadband business enjoyed some recovery as the pricing environment improves, but will suffer another price timing bump next quarter, and its mobile business is suffering from a tough market environment that is unlikely to improve in the short term

The company is busy re-branding, re-positioning and transforming, but the outlook for football rights costs and fibre roll-out regulation will dominate in the short term, and further bumps (such as the Virgin MVNO contract loss) may emerge

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

Market revenue growth bounced back to all of 1% in Q2 after near zero in the previous quarter, with broadband volumes at a near standstill

Operators appear resigned to this however, with new customer pricing appearing to recover, and wholesale price cuts not to be repeated

On the downside, further regulatory and commercial pressure on existing customer pricing is likely, and pricing détentes are often short lived

BT’s divisions had contrasting fortunes in Q1 2019/20, with Consumer revenue growth sharply turning negative but Openreach external revenue growth accelerating to 10%, leaving the Group level unchanged at -1% and EBITDA on course to meet guidance.

Consumer was hit by several regulatory and pricing factors mainly affecting mobile, and the short-term outlook remains tough, with a number of legacy pricing issues across fixed and mobile still to be resolved.

Openreach is reaping the benefit of previous price declines annualizing out, allowing it to take full advantage of higher speed demand, and due to its full fibre roll-out this dynamic could persevere for years.
 

TalkTalk suffered subscriber losses and falling consumer revenue growth in Q1, with churn still high despite the high speed base growing, countered by ARPU growing for the first time since 2017TalkTalk suffered subscriber losses and falling consumer revenue growth in Q1, with churn still high despite the high speed base growing, countered by ARPU growing for the first time since 2017

The subscriber drop was, however, modest and looks quite deliberate, with there being evidence of price firming in both direct and indirect channels supporting both ARPU and margin

This more cautious approach, if it can be sustained, puts the company on a much more healthy footing in our view, allowing it to achieve its financial targets without increasingly unsustainable existing customer price rises

Market revenue growth dipped to around zero in Q1, with fierce competition on new customer pricing the major factor

All four of the big operators now suffer from declining ARPU, with existing customer price rises increasingly hard to land given falling prices for new customers

The rapid move to superfast is not helping as much as it should; the operators will hope that they fare better with the move to ultrafast

BT is accelerating its ‘full fibre’ rollout, likely due to a combination of a successful build to date, very promising regulatory developments, and (let’s not deny it) worrying competitor build plans

Full year results were a little weak versus consensus, with guidance a little soft as well, leading to questions of how this can be funded, particularly the roll-out acceleration from 2021/22 to cover half the country by the mid-2020s

Whatever the funding mechanism, we regard the investment as sound, with BT’s planned operational transformation also promising but potentially requiring further upfront investment

Market revenue growth accelerated to 3% in Q4, but it might never reach this level again, being helped by a never-to-be-repeated BT overlapping price rise

With price rises becoming more challenging in general, and superfast pricing under pressure in particular, maintaining/increasing ARPUs is becoming more difficult despite superfast volumes surging

Openreach’s ultrafast roll-out has accelerated, challenging Virgin Media and bringing the prospect of further price premia, but perhaps too late to be of significant benefit in 2019