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.

Dixons Carphone (DC) has announced the closure of all of its standalone Carphone Warehouse stores, distributing solely through its Currys PC World stores and online going forward.

Several industry trends have led to these difficulties and DC is pivoting its strategy to better position itself for the new reality.

This move is likely to be a positive one for the mobile operators, especially H3G.

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.

O2’s performance in the quarter to December 2019 is likely broadly in line with that of the previous couple of quarters, save for the impact of the annualisation of the launch of Custom Plans.

Sustaining service revenue and OIBDA growth at -2% in these challenging times is a good performance particularly as the shift to direct distribution continues to drag on service revenue trends.

The industry outlook remains very challenging particularly from heightened competition from Vodafone and H3G. O2 looks set to fare better than most on the issue of out-of-contract notifications but the likely loss of 36-month contracts by year end will be a blow. Customer focus and innovation will remain key to their success.

Vodafone’s revenue performance remains decidedly lacklustre. Italy and Spain are struggling to bounce back, Germany is still languishing, and the UK’s 0.6% service revenue growth is the highlight of the quarter.

Liberty Global’s assets are disappointing both in terms of opening financials (revenues and EBITDA 8% and 12% lower than expected respectively) and outlook (now growing at half the rate at the time of deal announcement and guidance for Germany as a whole to be ‘flattish’).

Vodafone’s guidance for a pickup in revenue growth to more than 1% in Q4 is encouraging but these are very tentative steps forward in challenging times.

TalkTalk’s subscriber base and revenue fell again in Q3, and ARPU continued to decline despite good growth in its higher ARPU (but even higher wholesale cost) high speed base.

The sale of FibreNation to CityFibre and the accompanying wholesale deal provides much needed cash and de-risking, although the migration to full fibre still brings challenges to TalkTalk given its low price focus.

TalkTalk’s shorter term operational outlook is also still very challenging, with growing EBITDA in 2020/21 particularly difficult given stable/declining ARPU and the rising wholesale costs of migrating to high speed broadband.

The UK mobile market suffered its worst performance in six years this quarter as competition heated up and regulation continued to bite

Vodafone’s unlimited tariffs have proven popular, reaching 5% of its contract base in one quarter, helping to drive its outperformance

Some reprieve is in prospect next quarter, before the impact of out-of-contract notifications and automatic discounts from February, although there is the possibility of pre-emptive moves bringing some of the effects forward 
 

Vodafone continues to strike a very shareholder-friendly focus and tone but its operating performance remains decidedly muted, with revenue growth up just a touch but EBITDA growth halved

Vodafone’s drive for convergence is still costing it dearly. German mobile ARPU is down 7% and Liberty Global’s assets disappointed on their first consolidation with cashflow enhancement less than half that expected 

Apart from its ill-advised convergence strategy, Vodafone is making many sensible moves and there are indications that its unlimited plans are gaining traction. With leverage tight, pressure is mounting for demonstrable improvements in the financials some time very soon 

In spite of total revenue growth of 4%, O2’s service revenue growth took another step down to -3% this quarter, consistent with the worsening environment and EE’s results 

Its true performance is likely better than reported as IFRS15 has an artificially dampening effect on its service revenue as a consequence of O2’s Custom Plans, and is something of a boost to its impressive 6% EBITDA growth

O2 needs to continue to pedal hard to keep ahead of this challenging environment – with little let-up on the regulatory front, more aggression from Vodafone and H3G, and a potential regulatory hit to its Custom Plans 
 

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