Sky appears to have weathered the COVID-19 crisis, revealing an encouraging turnaround in its Q3 operating results, with revenue growth flat overall as each stream saw significant improvement from Q2.

Rights costs from a condensed sporting schedule began to hit EBITDA, which remains guided to fall by 60% across H2, with most of the impact in Q4. This was anticipated long ago, and Sky’s ambition remains to double 2020’s EBITDA “over the next several years”.

Having disclosed contrasting performances between its markets, Sky now appears more clearly committed to replicating its UK success in both Italy and Germany, with tangible plans in place to streamline costs and rebalance content expenditure—namely by “resetting” its spend on sports rights.

Virgin Media’s lockdown subscriber surge continued into Q3, as working-from-home highlights the importance of the faster speeds its network can offer.

ARPU is more challenged, and will get worse next quarter given its forgone price rise, but price rises are back in fashion in the industry, so this problem is likely to prove temporary.

Openreach’s full fibre remains a medium-term threat, but the company is rightly taking advantage while its network superiority remains, with momentum firmly in its favour for now.

BT’s revenue growth remained very suppressed in the September quarter at -7%, with a limited COVID-19 recovery chocked off by seasonal roaming effects and regulator-inspired pricing forbearance.

EBITDA growth did improve to -3% from -7% last quarter, mainly due to short-term cost actions and the early impact of its longer-term cost program, and the company has upgraded its short- and longer-term EBITDA targets.

The company is also optimistic on a longer-term return to underlying revenue growth, helped by a return to regular existing customer price increases and the impact of full fibre, but not until 2023, with a few bumps in the road before then.

With the European Commission’s decision to block the H3G/O2 merger annulled and with new H3G management sounding a very pro-consolidation tone, the prospect of mobile operators going from four to three in the UK seems to be back on the cards.

Both H3G/Vodafone and H3G/O2/Virgin Media combinations seem possible although each has its own complexity—existing network sharing arrangements being one of them.

With 5G delays and mounting costs following the decision to ban Huawei, consolidation is increasingly feeling like the most viable option for H3G whose returns are already too low and falling rapidly.

Market revenue fell 6% in Q1 2020, largely due to lack of sports revenue (which will bounce back), but backbook pricing woes also hit.

Broadband volume growth accelerated though, and may accelerate further as supply constraints ease.

The increase in working-from-home may also enhance demand for ultrafast, the best hope for a return to industry revenue growth.

BT’s June quarter results were predictably hit by COVID-19, with revenue and EBITDA dropping by 7%, but less predictably most of the hit was on mobile and business customer revenue, with consumer fixed resilient despite the suspension of sport.

BT’s full year guidance is cautious, with a 7% EBITDA decline at the mid-point, with much of this caution around further hits to its business revenue as government support is withdrawn.

BT’s full year guidance is cautious, with a 7% EBITDA decline at the mid-point, with much of this caution around further hits to its business revenue as government support is withdrawn.

The COVID-19 crisis and suspension of sport has hit Sky hard, with Q2 revenue falling 12.9% year-on-year, and EBITDA (while flat for now) expected to fall 60% in H2 as the rights costs from a condensed schedule hit the bottom line

Underlying trends are hard to discern amidst massive disruption, but the UK remains strong, and increasingly less dependent on sport, with continental Europe a work in progress to repeat this model

Longer-term initiatives continue, with new branded channel launches in the UK, broadband launched in Italy, and scope for further moves in Germany provided by significant sports rights cost savings following recent auctions

TalkTalk started its new financial year with revenue growth declining to -8% in Q1, although this is partly lockdown-related, and costs have also declined as churn plummeted.

While backbook pricing continues to be a challenge, new customer pricing continues to firm, which makes its expectation of stable/growing EBITDA for FY2020/21 possible albeit still difficult.

The company expects to launch full fibre products from Openreach imminently, and from CityFibre before the end of the year, with the adoption and eventual economics of these crucial to its medium and long-term future.

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.

 

 

Premium sports subscriptions are the primary sector weakness in the current crisis, and they look set to drive fixed operator revenues down 10% next quarter and Sky’s EBITDA down by 60%.

As lockdown eases, latent broadband demand can be more easily sated, and sports subscriptions will bounce back from the September quarter. A surge in working-from-home is likely to increase both the quantity and quality of home broadband demand, with ‘failover’ mobile backup also likely to be of greater interest.

Openreach will benefit from accelerated demand for full fibre, converged operators will be best-placed to offer mobile backup for broadband, and operators with a strong corporate presence will most easily target demand for home-working products.