UK mobile operators seem set to offer EU roaming on selected bundles only—a welcome new form of price differentiation.

This move is economically efficient and particularly helpful for MVNOs for whom the erstwhile arrangements were particularly punitive.

We don't envisage a return to the days of super-normal returns from roaming, but it is nonetheless conducive to much-needed price inflation in the sector.

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.

COVID, potential consolidation, implications for ALF pricing and non-contiguous blocks have conspired to make the forthcoming second 5G spectrum auction a highly complicated affair.

H3G seems unlikely to bid in a meaningful way for the 5G spectrum (3.6GHz+) but is expected to share the 700MHz band with EE. With the three leading operators likely to split the 3.6GHz+ spectrum between them, proceeds of £1bn-£2.7bn are conceivable.

The non-contiguous nature of the spectrum blocks on offer risks the operators ending up with fragmented holdings in spite of Ofcom’s endeavours to encourage trading—an efficiency loss of up to 20%.

There are some reasons to be cheerful about Vodafone right now—small nuggets of encouragement in its H1 results and the prospect of some market repair in the UK. Annual in-contract price rises of CPI + 3.9% across the UK mobile sector could provide very valuable support.

German fixed momentum is a low-light of its H1 results with growth of just 0.6% in spite of heightened broadband demand and in contrast to the 5% growth rate of the Liberty Global assets at time of acquisition.

The IPO of Vodafone’s towers business remains imperative to maintaining its leverage targets and dividend. We estimate that it will need to sell at least 30% of equity and realise a hefty multiple in challenging market conditions.

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.

The launch of new games consoles this week showcases broadly divergent strategies for Sony and Microsoft, with market leader PlayStation focused solely on defending its model against the rising tide of cheaper subscription games services.

Xbox's consumer offer is the best value proposition for these difficult economic times, attracting new customers and positioning for growth, and stopping slavish devotion to 'core gamers' in the process.

Amazon's Luna lands, providing big competition in game streaming services for Google's Stadia. But nobody is taking any notice, as neither provide a real breakthrough for the industry or great value for gamers. Stadia’s lifespan could be limited.

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.

There was just a slight deterioration in trends at O2 this quarter as the COVID drag was fairly constant in total, although varied in mix. However, the iPhone launch in Q4 rather than Q3 was almost as detrimental to total revenue growth which will reverse next quarter.

Strong net adds were a highlight, particularly so as an indicator that the O2 shops and website can compensate for the loss of Carphone Warehouse, and encouraging that O2 continues to prioritise growth .

The outlook is better from here as the roaming drag will lessen, Q4 is likely to deliver better net adds and there appears to be a more favourable political perspective for the sector which may expedite approval of the Virgin Media merger and possibly even consolidation in the mobile sector.

GDP growth slowed in August (+2.1%) from July (+6.4%), despite the boost to the hospitality sector from Eat Out to Help Out, while work from home (WFH) guidance remained in place for professional services.

WFH is providing resilience to B2B service verticals, thanks to the UK’s digital capabilities, while decimating B2C businesses, whose resilience is threatened as loan and furlough support programmes wind down. Rising unemployment casts a pall over consumer demand in the first winter of the pandemic.

Online continues to power retail sales, as consumers replace out-of-home with in-home activities. Online grocery sales have leapt to 10% of all grocery sales—double the pre-pandemic levels.