Mobile growth dipped again to -3.3% for what we hope is the final time as widespread lockdowns impacted paid-for usage in most countries.

BT and Vodafone joined the other European MNOs in guiding to improving trends in 2021—expecting EBITDA momentum to be 7-10ppts better—slightly ahead of the 5-7ppts for the European operators.

We may even see positive revenue growth next quarter thanks to the simple annualisation of the first lockdown, with the UK the most to gain and Germany and Italy the least. Investment is creeping up too with higher capex guidance and better 5G momentum.

The last lockdown caused service revenues to dip again to -7% in spite of some easing of roaming pressure and the annualisation of some early pandemic weakness.

The heralded, elevated in-contract price rises will fail to drive higher growth this year due to lower inflation—we estimate zero impact at BT/EE relative to 2020 and a reduction in revenue momentum of around 0.5ppts for each of the other operators.

The annualisation of the first lockdown is the most meaningful upside from here with a boost of around 5-7ppts possible. However, some pandemic upsides will also unwind, notably lower churn and enhanced B2B demand with the latter vulnerable to the end of furlough support and the economy.

Mobile revenue growth improved slightly to -3% this quarter, primarily thanks to a weakening in the drag from the loss of roaming.

European MNOs are guiding to improving trends in 2021—broadly stable revenues and EBITDA vs declines of 5-7% in 2020. This bodes well for guidance from the UK players around mid-May.

However, the outlook is far from rosy, with Q1 2021 still very challenging ahead of an annualisation of the pandemic drags from the June quarter. Growth prospects remain contingent on the resumption of travel and the economic climate.

Europe’s larger MNOs are falling over each other to demonstrate support for OpenRAN, which has become a primarily operator-driven standards initiative, with governments also firmly behind it.

This is driven by a desire to improve equipment interoperability from the current de facto monolithic standards, improve supplier diversity, and ultimately drive down cost.

While some movement towards interoperability is perhaps overdue, OpenRAN is not a panacea, and some trade-offs between price, performance, supplier diversity and reliability have to be accepted.

Mobile growth improved very marginally to -3.6% this quarter as roaming revenues were harder hit and competitive intensity bounced back, but usage recovered from the lockdowns in Q2 and cuts to intra-EU calls were annualised.

Italy’s fortunes took a turn for the worse as roaming hit particularly hard and Iliad resurged. After a spate of downgrades to the outlook last quarter, there were some tentative upgrades in Q3 although the tone remains cautious.

The diminished drag from roaming is the primary positive driver from here. Although lockdowns of some degree are in place in Q4, their impact will be less severe than those in Q2.
 

Service revenue declines stabilised at -7% this quarter with a myriad of factors at play: roaming worsening, the end of lockdown taking some pressure off, B2B a mixed bag, and the annualisation of cuts to intra-EU calls.

Ofcom’s second 5G auction will be a focus in January. We expect selective bidding, proceeds of up to £2.7bn, and some wrangling over spectrum trading.

The outlook is better from here as the drag from roaming eases, in-contract price rises step up from the spring, Carphone Warehouse diminishes as a factor in the market, and the prospect of consolidation is still on the table.

Press reports suggest that the restrictions on Huawei equipment may morph into a full ban, with new installations stopping soon and existing equipment to be removed by 2029.

The direct ‘tear-out’ and replacement costs for mobile would be very high at up to £2bn, and there would be significant disruption to 5G roll-outs as operators’ focus moves to replacing what they already have as opposed to pushing into new coverage areas.

Previous rules applied to fixed line broadband networks with as much force as mobile; having to replace Huawei broadband kit would almost certainly delay the move to ‘full fibre’, for no good reason even according to the government’s own report.

 

 

European mobile service revenue growth strengthened very slightly to -0.3% this quarter but, with many positive and negative factors at play, it would be wrong to conclude that we evidenced a convincing improvement in momentum.

Most operators have reiterated their financial guidance in spite of COVID-19 but there is caution from Vodafone and those exposed to sports rights (BT and Telefonica).

The outlook benefits from continued lockdown measures (reducing churn and spin-down) and the annualisation of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter. However, competition in Spain remains intense and the sector is exposed to any economic downturn.

The slow recovery in UK mobile continued this quarter with a 1ppt improvement in service revenue trends.

In spite of operator guidance to the negative, the sector is likely to remain relatively resilient in the face of COVID-19 in the short term, with its various impacts affecting operators differently depending on their business mix.

The outlook is relatively robust with the impact of some regulatory initiatives muted by lockdown measures and the annualization of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter.
 

European mobile service revenue growth improved by 1ppt to -1.2% primarily as a consequence of diminished competitive intensity in France. Trends elsewhere were largely flat.

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.

There are reasons to believe that the improvement in trends evidenced in the last quarter may continue as churn reduction takes the heat out of some markets, cuts to intra-EU calls annualises out and for most countries, end-of-contract notifications will only begin to impact in 2021.