It is widely expected that Apple will announce the first 5G iPhone at its event on 13 October, over a year after the UK launch of 5G networks, in contrast to Apple’s early start and key role in the launch of 4G

While the UK operators were early to launch 5G, the roll-out has thus far progressed slower than 4G did

The operator focus on 5G continues to be capacity as opposed to services, with 5G offering eye-watering speeds but not enabling any mass-market consumer services that 4G is not perfectly capable of

 

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.

With a lack of live sport, the lockdown weighed on incumbent pay-TV platforms’ subscriptions. SVOD providers leveraged their cheap positioning—Netflix and Amazon Prime Video now rank above other subscription services in Europe, and Disney+ had a successful launch.

Incumbents—Sky, Canal+, Movistar+—all pursue a twin-track strategy. They are positioning themselves as gatekeepers thanks to service bundles, while redirecting resources away from sports towards original series.

European productions are increasingly garnering audiences outside of their home markets, regardless of the production language. Netflix is a major conduit for European exports, due to personalisation of the interface and high-quality dubbing.

Investors warmly welcomed WMG's IPO of non-voting shares in March, valuing the company at $12.8bn, a 388% increase in the company's valuation since Len Blavatnik acquired it in 2011

Investors are placing a bet on music streaming. WMG's strength in the US market due to R&B and Hip-hop in its catalogue allowed it to outperform UMG and Sony on recorded music over 2015-19, an advantage that will dissipate when growth shifts to emerging markets

COVID-19 impacts explains WMG’s 6% decline in recorded music revenues for calendar Q2 2020, despite an 8% rise in digital revenue, as revenues from physical sales (vinyl and CD) sank, and also those from artist services due to the halted 2020 live music season

EE has announced the ending of its relationship with Carphone Warehouse, hot on the heels of a similar announcement from O2 a few months ago and the recent closure of Carphone Warehouse high-street stores.

Representing less than a third of the market gross adds, Carphone Warehouse is going to struggle to be viewed as a true comparison distribution channel. Its future probably lies elsewhere.

The closure of Carphone Warehouse stores, and now the diminished appeal of its website/off-high street stores, is positive for the operators.

Growth deteriorated by 3.5ppts, with the UK the weakest and Italy most robust thanks to its early onslaught of COVID-19, usage pickup in a largely pre-pay market and reprieve from a particularly competitive environment.

More operators (Orange and Telecom Italia) cut their guidance at the Q2 results and others (Deutsche Telekom and Iliad) sounded a note of caution regarding the likelihood of them reaching their full year targets.

The outlook for next quarter is mixed—roaming revenues will be even harder hit and competitive intensity is bouncing back but where usage has been depressed it will begin to recover well post-lockdown.

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.

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

Along with the rest of the mobile market, O2’s results were harder-hit by COVID than expected, with service and total revenues down by 9% and 4% respectively.

O2 estimates an 8ppt drag on revenues from COVID—much higher than the 1.6ppt Vodafone figure—a question of definition and business mix. The overall COVID impact on the market looks to be tentatively easing from next quarter and O2 should fare relatively well in that bounce-back.

The decision to terminate the Carphone Warehouse relationship will cause some short-term technical drags on performance but creates an opportunity to improve profitability. Reopening of O2 stores post lockdown will help to compensate for forfeiting Carphone as a route to market.

Vodafone’s performance this quarter was hit both by COVID and an underlying deterioration in its operational momentum—disappointing given regulatory easing and easier comparables.

Vodafone’s guidance has been more prudent than most going into this pandemic and these results support that cautious stance. Whether it’s a case of Vodafone underperforming or the sector being less resilient than expected will emerge over the coming weeks.

The IPO of Vodafone’s towers business is imperative to maintaining its leverage targets and dividend. It will need to sell a chunky slice of equity and realise a hefty multiple in challenging market conditions.  The profile of the asset for sale will help but it all remains very finely balanced.