Aussie regulator not in the ‘real world’ over Vodafone and TPG

Lawyers representing Vodafone Australia and TPG have suggested the Australian competition watchdog is not living in reality as it continues quest to force in a fourth MNO.

Last year, Vodafone and TPG announced intentions to merge operations in pursuit of creating a business which can offer comprehensive services in both the mobile and fixed segments. The pair were searching for ‘synergies’, seemingly a play to compete in the world of convergence, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission disagreed, blocking the merger four months ago.

The ACCC rationale was relatively simple; if the pair are forced to continue to operate independently, they could potentially fund their own fixed and mobile networks, broadening competition across the country. Vodafone and TPG suggest this is not the case.

“What TPG wants is for this merger to go through but when you step back and look at the options and approach it had before August 2018… it is entirely commercially realistic that TPG will return to rolling out a mobile network,” said Michael Hodge, representing the ACCC in court.

However, the opposition hit back.

“There isn’t a real chance that TPG will pursue the rollout of a mobile network. There is not a real chance that TPG will become Australia’s fourth network,” said Inaki Berroeta, Vodafone Australia CEO.

The dispute here is simple. The ACCC wants four, independent MNOs across the country. TPG made some noise about deploying its own network prior to the merger announcement, though these ambitions were seemingly quashed by the ban on Huawei technology in the country.

“TPG did try to build it, but it was thwarted by community objections, by technical difficulties but ultimately by the federal government’s security guidance,” Ruth Higgins, the legal representative of TPG, said.

Vodafone and TPG do not believe they can compete with Optus and Telstra without a merger, though the ACCC is under the impression a fourth MNO will emerge organically.

TPG did announce in May 2018 it was planning to launch its own mobile network, learning from the success of Reliance Jio in India. The idea to attract subscribers was to offer six months of data and voice services for free, though this idea was killed off due to two developments.

The first development was the merger between Vodafone and TPG. Why would it build its own mobile network when it could dovetail with Vodafone, bringing its own fixed network to the party to complete the convergence dream.

The second development was the banning of Huawei technology in Australia.

“It is extremely disappointing that the clear strategy the company had to become a mobile network operator at the forefront of 5G has been undone by factors outside of TPG’s control,” TPG Executive Chairman David Teoh said at the time.

Following the decision, TPG decided against building its own mobile network as Huawei was the main supplier to the firm. This is an instance which backs up the Huawei claims it will improve competition in the 5G vendor ecosystem, bringing down the price of equipment investment and speed of deployment.

The decision to end TPG investment in a mobile network might have been enough to convince the ACCC the merger could be approved, but it seems the competition watchdog is clinging onto the hope it would do so on its own. TPG statements should be taken with a pinch of salt, it wouldn’t be the first-time executives changed their minds, but it does run the risk of negatively impacting competition.

One thing which is not healthy for any market is a tiered ranking system. If Vodafone cannot compete with Optus and Telstra without the converged business model the TPG assets offer, it might well fall further behind. If it dwindles to the point of irrelevance, the Australian telco market will be in a worse position than it is today, or with the combined Vodafone/TPG company offering increased competition. The risk the ACCC runs is effectively creating a duopoly.

Realistically, there is no right or wrong answer here. We do not have a crystal ball, and we cannot read the minds of TPG executives. It might well pursue the deployment of a mobile network if the prospect of a merger is killed off all together, but then again, it might just double-down on fixed line investments. It does currently have an MVNO, but that is a poor substitution for a fourth MNO to increase competition.

Elliott’s vultures are circling AT&T

Activist investor Elliott Management has set its eyes on AT&T, suggesting the firm is bloated and undervalued, with ambitions to cut staff, clear out the leadership team and sell-off non-core assets.

In a letter sent to AT&T investors, Partner Jesse Cohn and Associate Portfolio Manager Marc Steinberg have attacked the firm and suggested a drastic turnaround strategy which includes divestments, retail location closures, job cuts and a change in mentality. It does appear shareholders are intrigued by the idea, with share price increasing 6% in pre-market trading.

“The purpose of today’s letter is to share our thoughts on how AT&T can improve its business and realize a historic increase in value for its shareholders,” the letter states.

“Elliott believes that through readily achievable initiatives – increased strategic focus, improved operational efficiency, a formal capital allocation framework, and enhanced leadership and oversight – AT&T can achieve $60+ per share of value by the end of 2021. This represents 65%+ upside to today’s share price – a rare opportunity for any company, let alone one of the world’s largest.”

For those who aren’t familiar with Elliott Management, this is not necessarily a move which is out of character.

Known as a ‘vulture fund’, the team search for businesses which it deems are undervalued and effectively enter to cause chaos. More often than not, the team suggests a complete overhaul of senior managers and a new strategy. This strategy often involves job cuts and asset stripping. Shareholders are brought on board with the promise of increased dividends and a boost in share price.

There are numerous examples where the team has attempted to muscle in on operations, with Telecom Italia (TIM) being the most relevant in recent history. At TIM, Elliott Management has been battling with Vivendi for control and a new strategy, and it does appear to be winning.

In the case of AT&T, Elliott Management is promising a 65% increase in share price by the end of 2021. This is an attractive promise as share price has barely moved over the last five years, from $34.50 on September 12, 2014 to $36.25 at the close of the markets on Friday (September 6, 2019). During this period, a high of $43.28 was experienced on August 12, 2016, and a low of $28.31 on December 21, 2018.

But how do these numbers compare to the share price of AT&T’s rivals over the last five years?

Telco Today 12 Sept, 2014 High Low
AT&T $36.25 $34.50 $43.28 $28.31
Verizon $59.06 $48.40 $60.30 $42.84
T-Mobile US $79.15 $30.83 $84.25 $25.31
Sprint $6.82 $7.00 $9.30 $2.66

Although AT&T is a dominant force in the US telco industry, it has seemingly not capitalised on the 4G revolution in the same way some of its rivals have, most notably T-Mobile US. To rub salt into the wounds, AT&T failed to acquire T-Mobile US in 2011, had to pay the largest break-up fee to date (at the time), and then provided the firm with a seven-year roaming deal and spectrum. This could perhaps be viewed as the turning point for the struggling T-Mobile US.

Another interesting assertion from the Elliott Management team is inability of the AT&T business to act in a timely fashion. This is another point CEO Randall Stephenson should be worried about, as Elliott Management claims AT&T did not deploy 4G aggressively enough and lost out to Verizon in the battle for first place. With 5G on the horizon, investors might well be worried about a repeat.

Ultimately, the biggest criticism is one of poor performance. Despite some very attractive numbers in the 90s and 00s, AT&T hasn’t really pushed on to capitalise on this momentum. In fairness, every telco around the world has suffered over the course of the last decade thanks to the growing influence of the OTTs, but this point has been conveniently ignored in the Cohn and Steinberg letter.

However, it is the acquisition strategy is one of the biggest points made.

“In recent periods, however, AT&T has embarked upon a very different sort of M&A strategy,” the letter states. “Over a series of deals totalling nearly $200 billion, AT&T built a diversified conglomerate by pushing into multiple new markets.

“In each case, the push was as significant as possible. Beginning the decade as a pure-play telecom company with leading wireless and wireline franchises, AT&T has transformed itself into a sprawling collection of businesses battling well-funded competitors, in new markets, with different regulations, and saddled with the financial repercussions of its choices.”

The telco industry has changed in the last decade, and Elliott Management clearly doesn’t agree it is for the better. In the 90s and 00s, acquisitions were connectivity orientated, while recent years have seen an aggressive push into the world of digital services, diversifying products which can be offered to the consumer.

This is one of the critical points the Elliott Management team is levying towards AT&T; its acquisition strategy has not been effective. The failure to merge with T-Mobile US is a critical point, but since that point the team has spend more than $200 billion to create a beast of a business. Some have suggested this was necessary to diversify the business in preparation for the digital economy, however this is not the opinion of Elliott Management.

We do not agree with Elliott Management here. Convergence is a sound business model which moves the telco into the value-add column. A more stringent focus on connectivity will walk the telco down the road of utilitisation, opening the industry up to more aggressive regulations and price controls. This is not the direction many telcos want to head, but Elliott Management does seem to like the profits driven out of a business which focuses on operational efficiencies and little else.

Let’s not forget the Elliott Management business model after all. Identify underperforming shares, disrupt the business model for short-term share price rises and then sell the stock, while collecting meaty dividends along the way. If Elliott Management gets it way, AT&T will be a utilitised business, with fewer assets. It might not be a competitive force in a decade, when other telcos are reaping the benefits of diversification. However, Elliott Management will not care by that point.

Perhaps the three most important points of the plan set forward by Elliott Management are:

  1. A change in strategic direction from acquisition to executive
  2. Clearing out the current management team
  3. Divestment in non-core assets

There are other points made, such as closing redundant retail locations, negotiating more authorised third-party retailers, cutting back on the over-bureaucracy, simplifying the management structure and redundancies. However, we feel the three mentioned above are perhaps the most important for investors.

By shifting from an acquisition mind-set to an execution one, and making the suggestion of divestments, it would appear the AT&T business is one which will be focused more acutely on traditional telecommunications services. The tone of the letter does not suggest Elliott Management believe the content world is one which can bring fortunes, and the way in which the team discuss the success of T-Mobile US also alludes to this new, narrowed focus.

What does this mean for the very expensive content acquisitions? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps everything. We suspect the idea from Elliott Management would be to silo each of the business units, allowing a more lasered focus on core revenues in the siloes. There might well be cross-selling opportunities, but the language used by Cohn and Steinberg suggests digital services and ambitious convergence is not on the agenda.

The proposed strategy to realise the 65% increase in share price is one of simplicity, enhancing what is currently in the armoury and taking a more traditional approach to the business of connectivity.

And while there might be thousands of nervous employees throughout the organization worried of the prospect of job cuts, the senior management team should be much more concerned. After interviewing various former-executives, Elliott Management has come to conclusion that the executive management team does not have the right skillset to tackle the challenges which AT&T is facing today.

Should Elliott Management get its way, heads could roll, and the leadership team could look remarkably different. Elliott Management is also seeking greater influence for the Board of Directors, another common play from the team. The activist investor often looks to secure positions to friendlies at the companies it has in its crosshairs, and it will certainly want to exert more control on the strategy moving forward.

If Elliott Management gains control and influence at AT&T, it could look like a very different business. The investor believes it has identified $10 billion in cost-efficiencies would can be realised through spending $5 billion. This does not account for any divestments which would be made though. AT&T might well have fewer retail locations, a smaller headcount, a new management team, a lessened focus on content and digital services and a more utilised business model in the near future.

This is only the beginning of this saga, Elliott Management will certainly have a wrestle on its hands to gain control, but it does have good form when it comes to forcing through disruption.

The winners and losers of telecoms will be decided by convergence

There are still naysayers about the benefits of convergence, but those who ignore this trend will fast find themselves sleep-walking the path to utilitisation and irrelevance.

First and foremost, let’s have a look at what convergence actually is. This strategy is not the silver bullet which some telcos are seeking. A convergence strategy which not recapture the lost fortunes of yesteryear overnight, and it will not turn the traditional telco into the sleek shape of an internet giant. However, it does future-proof the business against the rising tides of utilitisation.

For those companies who are happy to be utilities, fair enough. There are profits to be made through the commoditisation of data services, though it is a very different type of business. But those who think they can be a value-add business, simply focusing on a single revenue stream are fooling themselves. Those companies shall remain nameless here, but it is pretty obvious who they are.

Convergence is about layering the business through multiple service offerings and diversifying the way in which telcos can engage consumers. It could be through multiple connectivity opportunities, and increasingly content has become a common theme, but there are numerous options open to the telco which demonstrates a bit of bravery.

According to recent research from OSS/BBS firm Openet, 73% of consumers are open to purchasing more digital services from telcos. The result of the introduction of these services is not only more revenue, but increased loyalty. 65% said the presence of more digital services would make them feel more engaged with their telco, while 79% said it would increase their loyalty.

Firstly, this is an opportunity to avoid the dreaded race to the bottom. If a telco can offer a positive network experience (not a given in today’s world however) and a reasonable price, as well as digital services, churn will also theoretically decrease. But what do digital services actually mean?

Content is the most obvious one to start with. If a telco is flush enough, this can mean owning a content segment, such as football rights in Spain for example, though partnerships with OTTs is an increasingly popular option. The telcos can be very valuable partners to the OTTs, either through their billing relationship with the customer or a trusted link in regions were direct customer acquisition is more difficult.

Numerous telcos are taking this approach, and it is proving popular with customers. Using the Openet research once again, 38% of respondents would switch their provider for better content options, while another 38% would be interested in changing should there be a zero-rating offer attached also.

But content is only the start, and this is an area which could become increasingly commoditised if/when these partnerships become commonplace. Looking beyond these content bundles, offering a broad range of niche features could be the next battle ground. Think of the Vodafone partnership with Hatch for gaming. This will not appeal to everyone, but it will attract interest from a niche. O2’s Priority loyalty programme offers early access to music venues and festivals. Again, a niche, but it will appeal strongly to some.

Looking further afield once again is where you start to see the real leaders in the digital world. Orange is a perfect example, with its security products. This is where the world of connectivity and digital services can be blended to attract completely new revenues. And of course, as more of the world become digitised, there are more opportunities to add value on top of connectivity offerings.

The smart home presents opportunities, as does the connected car. The telcos have a unique opportunity to capitalise on the digital world as few consumers today would leave their home without their smartphone. This is a direct, and constant, link to the consumer. There are not many other industries which can boast this advantage.

Interestingly enough, the telcos will not even be cannibalising their own revenues with these new products. For most consumers, the money spent on connectivity is different from that which is spent on entertainment or security. If you can help them spend less through bundled services, this is a bonus, but asking the consumer to spend money on entertainment as well as connectivity is not going to decrease ARPU. Quite the opposite.

The consumer wants to spend money on entertainment and digital services, but the question is who they are going to spend it with.

Ideally, we would like to see more telcos take the Google approach to business. In 2015, Google undertook a business restructure, separating the two functions into very distinct business units. On one side, you have the core search business. Google knows it can make money from this without really trying. On the other side, you have ring-fenced funds which are used to fuel the ideas which drive diversification on the spreadsheets.

Through this structure, one side of the business is not influenced by the other until the right time. Ideas are given the opportunity to flourish and be what they are intended to be, without the limitations of the traditional business. Fi is an MVNO which has emerged from the research side, as is Sidewalk Labs and balloon connectivity firm Loon. Without the separation, would these ideas have evolved to their full potential which is currently being realised?

This is the challenge which the telcos are facing. Convergence and the evolution into a digital services provider requires an internal disruption. It demands executives think about priorities different and invest in areas which are alien to the organization. It means being forward thinking and preparing to fuel ideas with long-term ambitions. And it needs to be done quickly.

You don’t necessarily have to be first to market, but you need to be a fast-follower at the very least. A convergence strategy encourages loyalty from subscribers after all, and once the dust has settled, it will become increasingly difficult to lure valuable postpaid customers away from rivals.

Not every telco will get it right. Not every telco will believe in the convergence buzz. And not every telco will evolve fast enough. However, there could be the creation of a tiered industry for too long. The winners at the top who nail convergence and become a valuable part of the digital economy, and the losers who continue to trudge the path to commoditisation.

Rakuten delays network launch to work out the bugs

Japan’s fourth mobile operator has said it will delay its launch, originally set for October 1, in favour of a limited trial for 5,000 users.

The announcement will put a dampener on the spirits of those who are closely watching developments in Japan. With the barriers set so high on entering the mobile connectivity game for new-comers, cash-rich technology companies will be looking for tips and tricks to develop their own game-plans, though this was not supposed to be part of the story.

“In order to ensure the stability and quality of its service for customers and continue to improve the network based on customer feedback and requests, the company will initially open applications to 5,000 subscribers free of charge through the Free Supporter Program,” the firm said in a statement.

The official launch of the service will now be at some point before 31 March 2020, with the Free Support Program set to conclude at that point. Those subscribers who are assisting with the network trial will continue to get free services through to 31 March however.

The trial will focus on Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya City and Kobe City, with KDDI and Okinawa Cellular to provide roaming services outside of these regions. Those on the trial will receive unlimited calls and data services through the period, in exchange for providing regular feedback to the telco.

The launch of Rakuten has caught the attention of many inside and outside of Japan for several reasons. In the country, consumers have had to deal with three providers to date and the introduction of a fourth player will provide additional competition, as well as a potential disruption to create a new status-quo when it comes to pricing. Just look at the impact Reliance Jio had on India to see the potential a new player can inspire.

Outside of Japan, there will of course be vendors rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a genuine greenfield project, though those who have an interest in muscling in on the connectivity game.

Starting with the vendors, this is a potential gold mine. If Rakuten is going to be competitive, it will have to get its network up-and-running very quickly. Aggressive network deployment and expansion to reduce the reliance on roaming requires some serious investment. The more success Rakuten can generate in the early days, the more quickly it will be able to mobilise investment to fuel further expansion.

And now for the disruptors. There will be several companies which will be keeping an eye on developments here, hoping to understand what works and what doesn’t when deploying a new network.

Dish is one company which falls into this category. Should the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger survive the legal challenges it is facing, Dish will become the fourth MNO in the US through acquiring the Boost prepaid brand from Sprint. It will then have to try and build its own network as quickly as possible.

There are of course other companies who have already declared their interest in the mobile connectivity game, 1&1 Drillisch in Germany for example, however internet companies have also been rumoured to be getting involved.

Amazon is the company which immediately comes to mind, a rumour about Amazon mobile is never too far away, however this is applicable to any internet firm which has a lot of money. Owning and managing a network is one way to make money, another opportunity to collect valuable data on consumers and a chance to own the relationship with the consumer end-to-end.

If Rakuten can prove an internet company can deploy an end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native network cost-effectively and in a timely manner, as well as attract the right people to manage the network to meet customer expectations, why wouldn’t others believe they can do the same.

Amazon has buckets of cash, as does Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Baidu or Microsoft. If Rakuten can do it, why couldn’t they? Or how about investment companies and venture capitalists who are always looking for a way to make money?

Nvidia brings its cloud gaming to Android

2019 was already looking like a promising year for cloud gaming and now Nvidia is bringing its own service, GeForce NOW, to Android, the streaming scrap is heating up.

Specifics on timing have not been released just yet, neither have pricing details, though Nvidia has said its streaming service will be available on Android devices over the coming months. With the service already available on PC and Mac devices, entering the Android world adds the potential of another two billion devices.

“Already in beta to the delight of 1 billion underpowered PCs that aren’t game ready, GeForce NOW will soon extend to one of the most popular screens in the world, Android phones – including flagship devices from LG and Samsung,” the team said on its blog.

“Just like on PC, Mac and Shield TV, when the Android mobile app releases it’ll be in beta. We’ll continue improving and optimizing the experience.”

The move into Android will take Nvidia into direct competition with both Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud. There are of course pros and cons for all the available services, though a couple of bonus’ for Nvidia will gauge the interest of some gamers. Firstly, second purchases on titles will not be needed for the cloud gaming service, while the GeForce RTX graphics performance will be introduced soon enough.

Google was the first to plug the potential of cloud gaming back in March, promising users they will be able to access their games at all times, and on virtually any screen. The initial launch will be for £8.99 a month, though the team does plan on launching a ‘freemium’ alternative soon after. As you can imagine, Google is always looking for ways the complex data machine can offer content to users for profit.

It didn’t take long for Microsoft to launch its own alternative following the press Google collected. Hyped as the ‘Netflix of video games’, Microsoft will charge $9.99 to access a range of Xbox One and Xbox 360 titles on any screen. Like Stadia and GeForce NOW, a controller would have to plugged into Android devices.

There are some ridiculous figures which are being banded around concerning the percentage of traffic cloud gaming will account for during the 5G era, it is a segment worth keeping an eye on.

US wearables market surges to $2bn in Q2

After years of letting the industry down, the wearables segment has seemingly finally got its act together, with sales totalling $2 billion in the second quarter of 2019.

According to estimates from Canalys, shipments in the second quarter increased 38% year-on-year to 7.7 million devices, with Apple leading the market share rankings, though homage should be paid to Samsung. The Korean brand saw shipments more than double, 121% year-on-year increase, to roughly 800,000 devices.

“Smartwatch vendors are increasingly getting nearer the bullseye – hitting the right price point in a way that spurs massive demand,” said

“With Samsung’s new Galaxy Watch branding in place, and showing robust performance, the company has moved to cultivate a fitness-focused line-up with the Galaxy Watch Active series, with prices between $200 and $300.

“Packing features into a compact form factor that has an appealing design is challenging but rewarding. Samsung most recently showcased these capabilities with its latest Watch Active 2 series, though other vendors are close behind.”

Of course, this market has offered many false dawns for the excitable industry on the whole, and Samsung has been one of the contributors to this trauma. Despite having a leadership position in the smartphone space, Samsung has struggled to translate this into the wearables market, though these numbers suggest the Korean brand has turned a corner.

Overall, this is a very promising trend to keep an eye on. There is a huge amount of potential for the wearables market, especially now more connectivity and entertainment options can be embedded into the products.

This is perhaps what has stuttered enthusiasm for these products over the last few years. They are functional products, few would suggest smartwatches can compete with traditional time pieces from a fashion perspective, though the functionality was never enough to justify the financial outlay. Introducing stand-alone connectivity and embedded more features is addressing this challenge, while the progress of the voice user interface will add another element.

Interestingly enough, this might just be the tip of the iceberg. The more normalised smartwatch devices become, the more open consumers will be to other connected devices. It might not be too-long before we are talking about LTE-connected glasses or headphones to act as an alternative to communications devices.

Sources: White House holds off Huawei reprieve after China counter-punch

US suppliers are still staring into the abyss as reports emerge the US Government has halted its special-permissions programme to work with Huawei due to Chinese retaliation.

According to Bloomberg, applications for special-licenses to continue supplying Huawei with US components, products and services are currently on hold, as the US Government ponders the latest counter-move from the Chinese Government; a halt to purchases of US agricultural equipment.

Just as there was a moment to celebrate, dozens of US firms are now allegedly back to square one.

The licenses themselves have proved to be popular, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggesting his department had received 50 applications, as of last week. This is not to say 50 companies will be given permission, the US Government has hinted the majority will be turned down, though it is back to purgatory the suppliers go.

Entry onto the Entity List has caused a significant headache for numerous parties around the world. Not only do the US suppliers have to figure out where they are going to recapture lost revenues, but potential customers in other markets have to assess the quality and resilience of the products following a disruption to the supply-chain.

Last month, Ross announced the Commerce Department would start accepting applications for licenses to receive permission to trade with Huawei. That said, no advice was offered on the criteria said applications would be measured against, aside from an ill-defined reference to national security.

What is also worth noting is the mentality of those considering the applications. Refusal would be front of mind, unless the application was compelling enough.

However, this has all been turned upside-down.

We might have been expecting retaliation from Chinese Government, though few would have assumed the White House would snap the olive branch extended to US suppliers who are losing a major customer. This is allegedly what is happening today.

This tit-for-tat trade battle has now entered the realms of finger pointing. Trump has suggested he would loosen controls on Huawei if China increased purchases of US agricultural equipment. China has stopped purchases because the noose is still firm grasped, but the US is not willing to let go because China has not ramped up its purchases.

It’s a Mexican stand-off with private companies, in both countries, feeling the pain of government posturing and flexing, as egos are massaged by enablers and yes-men looking to gain favour with short-sighted and morally-bankrupt politicians.

Looking at the collateral damage, numerous US technology companies saw share price decline following the rumours. Skyworks Solutions, where 10% of revenues are attributable to Huawei, recently reported quarterly earnings with a $127 million hole in the spreadsheets. Total revenues were 16% down in comparison to the same period of 2018, prior to the Huawei headache.

Interestingly enough, there are several companies who have publicly stated they have applied for licences. Micron and Xilinx, two US semiconductor companies, have said the license is key as their role in the supply chain can be replaced by a foreign alternative.

If the rhetoric of the trade-war is to help US companies in the long-run, the very opposite is being done with these two organisations; once they are out of the supply chain, it will be very difficult to get back in. Most likely the only way will be to renegotiate contracts at less favourable rates to convince Huawei to ditch newly found alternatives.

Google is another which will pray for the end of the trade-war and ban on supplying Huawei due to the emergence of Harmony OS, the Chinese vendors in-house OS which could be applied to smartphones and smart devices. The emergence of another contender in the OS segment could lead to Google losing real-estate on millions (if not billions) of devices for its products such as Google Play, Chrome and Google Maps.

Right now, it is difficult to see this trade-war as anything more than a battle of egos. It was supposed to counter nefarious activities of the Chinese Government, creating a platform for US companies to thrive. However, with alternatives being sought and created, the temporary damage could turn permanent very quickly.

US suppliers do not want to permanently lose a lucrative position in the supply chain of one of the worlds’ fastest growing technology companies, though that is the reality some will have to face.

Convergence may well pay off for Virgin Media

It might not be setting the world on fire, but Virgin Media is proving the slow, steady approach to business is certainly worth paying attention to.

On the financial side of the business, total revenues grew marginally by 0.4% to £1.279 billion for the second quarter. Broadband customer acquisitions bolstered the financials, though these gains were mainly offset by customer losses in TV and mobile. This doesn’t seem to be the most attractive of statements, though the management team doesn’t seem to be worried as the convergence mentality becomes more prominent.

“Our disciplined and balanced approach to customer acquisition and capital expenditure has seen a return to growth in our sector-leading cable ARPU and strong free cash flow generation,” said Lutz Schüler, CEO of Virgin Media.

“Underpinning this is the continued success of our network expansion, new initiatives to improve sales and customer service and our fixed-mobile Oomph bundles which have already seen a doubling of customers attaching a mobile SIM to their package with meaningfully higher ARPU.”

An important aspect to always consider when discussing convergence is the incremental nature; this is a strategy which casts an eye to the horizon. Quarter-on-quarter you might not see the benefits, but in a few years’ time, a few will look back and wonder how they got by without such a considered approach to customer management, acquisition and retention.

Looking at the business objectives, there are four strategic pillars; converged customer contracts, increased sales efficiencies, improvement in base management and digital transformation. None of these strategies are a silver-bullet to find the next billion, but this is looking like a business which is in a healthy position, posed for growth in the next era of connectivity.

In the broadband business, Protect Lightning (the fibre buildout programme) now passes 1.8 million premises throughout the UK. Subscriptions increased by 5,000 across the period, taking the total to 14.7 million. Video cable subscriptions are down, though with a new bundle offering launched focused on sport, this could be an interesting area of growth for the business.

Over the next couple of weeks, we strongly suspect there will be an aggressive advertising campaign to glorify the benefits of Virgin Media’s TV subscriptions. Bundling together Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon (separate subscription) into a single aggregated content platform might be attractive to numerous sports fans, and at a cheaper price than competitors, it has the potential to cause disruption.

This has been a pain-point for Virgin Media for the last few years. Speaking from experience, your correspondent can detail the inadequacies of the TV package, though industry analysts are increasingly confident this new approach from Virgin Media is much more comprehensive. The management team are also putting a brave face on the loss of TV subscriptions, suggesting the strategy is to move away from entry-level customers, focusing on higher-end, higher-value targets.

These are two of the convergence prongs at Virgin Media, with mobile being the final. This is another area where subscriptions declined, primarily pre-paid, though as Virgin Media is currently an ‘also-ran’ in the mobile segment there is significant room for growth if the proposition is fairly priced in.

Working with EE/BT, the opportunity is certainly there to create an effective mobile proposition. EE/BT regularly has the highest rated network in terms of overall performance, though perhaps Virgin Media’s ability to offer 5G tariffs will play a notable role here. We’re not too sure what the agreement is between the two parties, though should it be able to offer 5G services over the EE/BT network sooner rather than later, the convergence strategy may well receive a boost.

Looking at the benefits of convergence, many point to higher ARPU, though perhaps the more significant, longer-term advantage is customer retention. Virgin Media experienced 15% customer churn at the end of 12-month contracts, though many accept churn rates decrease for converged customers. Considering the cost of acquiring new customers in a saturated market like the UK, anything which can be done to improve retention is a massive bonus.

In terms of convergence, the number of fixed-mobile converged customers has improved to 19.9%, as the proportion of new customers taking mobile with cable services doubled post launch. We have asked for more details on the number of converged customers as a percentage of the total, churn rates in comparison between the two and differences in ARPU, and at the time of writing Virgin Media is yet to respond.

We suspect the numbers will be positive, though nothing that will stop the world from spinning. That said, that is not a bad thing. Convergence is about incremental gain, the slow and steady approach to business improvement.

Convergence is about setting goals a few years in the future, it’s a gradual gander forward. You might not see the benefits, but looking back, you’ll wonder how you operated without such a considered approach to business. Virgin Media is looking like it is in a healthy position.

Telcos aren’t the only ones to blame for poor mobile experience

We’ve all experienced this frustration. Maybe its ordering an Uber, downloading a document or doing online banking, only for poor performance to be the buzzkill. But what if the telcos aren’t to blame?

When you are down the pub and jealously looking over at the streaming power your mate’s device can conjure, the first question is always the same; who is your contract provider? This usually leads to a moan about one telco being terrible, but they are cheaper, so it’s not the end of the world. Now, some telcos are certainly better at delivering performance than others, but it is not the only factor which should be considered.

This is not to say the telcos are completely blameless, farmers will back you up here, but a new report from Openreach suggests there is quite a notable variance between the performance of each of the device manufacturers when the smartphones are out in the wild.

“All smartphones are not created equal,” Ian Fogg, Opensignal’s VP of Analysis, wrote in the report. “Just as different smartphones offer a variety of camera qualities or screen sizes, they also differ in the network communication features which enable faster download speeds and smoother video streaming.”

Using 117.8 billion measurements from 23.3 million devices between April 1 and June 30 , Opensignal has produced a critique of the top three smartphone manufacturers across a broad range of different nations.

The table below is only a snippet of the research, but it paints an interesting picture:

Country Samsung Apple Huawei
Norway 58 Mbps 44 Mbps 46 Mbps
Switzerland 44 Mbps 45 Mbps 38 Mbps
UAE 32 Mbps 47 Mbps 27 Mbps
UK 25 Mbps 20 Mbps 25 Mbps
USA 28 Mbps 20 Mbps 17 Mbps
Spain 29 Mbps 26 Mbps 26 Mbps
South Africa 19 Mbps 18 Mbps 16 Mbps
India 9 Mbps 7 Mbps 9 Mbps

Across the 40 countries which were included in the research, Samsung’s devices were the fastest on average in 14 of the countries, Apple was fastest in 7. In the remaining 21, there was a tie for the fastest average device speed. Huawei was not a standalone winner anywhere, though it was joint fastest in 7.

Interestingly enough, in some of the markets where Apple is the leader in terms of market share, it is not the best performing provider. In the US, Samsung lead the way in terms of average download speeds by quite a margin, and it also fell in second place in Japan. Australia is another market where the iLeader came up short.

As mentioned before, the telcos are not innocent when it comes to poor performance. Congestion on individual mobile sites, network architecture, line of sight and numerous other factors slow download speeds, but we suspect few people will blame their devices. Another interesting factor is the amount which has been spent on the device in the first place.

Opensignal Device Grpahic

As you can see from the graphic above, the difference between high-, mid- and low-end devices is very notable. Many will accept there are differences between the different tiers of devices will offer different performance when they actually think about it, however, the cynic in all of us will simply believe the manufacturers are attempting to bleed as much cash out of customers for additional bells and whistles.

The difference between the tiers is down to exactly the same reason for the difference between the device manufacturers themselves. Devices will have different chipsets, or antenna, or will be able to connect to more frequency bands, there are 40 different bands in use for 4G after all. Different manufacturers will use different components, but then a manufacturer will use different quality components across a range of devices depending on how much it plans to charge for the specific device.

Moving forward, when latency becomes more of a factor, this is another area which could see more variance.

Latency is often discussed today, and while there are few usecases for the moment, this is an area which will continue to develop over the coming years. Release 16 from 3GPP should improve these metrics and drive the creation of new business cases. Soon enough there might be more justification for ludicrously expensive flagship devices outside the realms of bells and whistles.

Opensignal Latency Grpahic

An interesting question for Apple customers will be the performance of the devices in the future. Over the last few years, Apple has been moving more of its supply chain in-house, attempting to remove any reliance on external partners. The recent purchase of Intel’s smartphone chip business unit is an excellent example.

Apple is a company which excels at a lot of things, but the hardcore engineering of components is not one of them right now. The leader in the modem field is arguably Qualcomm, though considering the turbulent relationship between the two over the last two years, it would surprise few to see a permanent end to it. What impact this has on the performance of the iPhone remains to be seen.

Huawei is another which could be skating on thin ice. Similar to Apple, the Chinese giant has moved more activities to its own components business, HiSilicon, though it is still reliant on external partners in certain areas. A number of these suppliers are from the US, painting an unpleasant picture while it remains on the Entity List, banned from purchasing some critical components.

Corning is one supplier to Huawei, however finding another company to supply the cover glass will be a simple job. When it comes to the highly-specialised semiconductor manufacturers, one of the areas the US excels globally, it becomes a bit more difficult. The likes of Qualcomm, Skyworks Solutions, Micron, Qorvo and NeoPhotonics would have been selected for a reason. There will be alternatives, but you have to wonder whether this will impact performance.

The technology industry is going through an interesting time at the moment, and depending on who you work for, that is either very good or very bad. With the growth of the voice interface and emerging technologies such as AR set to play a bigger role in the future, devices could look and feel incredibly different in a few years.

Interestingly enough, consumers don’t seem to purchase devices based on the performance offered. This might be down to the assumption performance is entirely driven by the telcos, or perhaps consumers do not understand the complexities. Maybe this will change in the future, but it could certainly be a selling-factor for some manufacturers if the consumer actually understands the language, numbers and acronyms.

There will be new factors to consider when purchasing or even using a device, but when things do go wrong, blaming the telcos for poor performance might not be the most complete assumption.

Solid if unspectacular results for Three UK as it prepares for the 5G era

Three UK has unveiled its financial results for the first half of 2019, and while it is nothing to shout and scream about, the bigger prizes are coming into view on the horizon.

Revenue might have decreased by 2%, but that is nothing to worry about when you look at the bigger picture. Subscribers are increasing, net promoter score is on the up, margins are remaining consistent and the enterprise business unit is demonstrating steady growth. 5G is on the horizon and Three is in a healthy position to demonstrate growth.

“We’re pleased with the progress we’re making going towards 5G,” said CFO Darren Purkis. “Feel we’re setting up the business well for the launch in the second half of the year.”

This might have been a bit of a tricky period for the Three business to navigate, as while it has a reputation for disrupting the status quo and playing a different ball-game from its rivals, it has been relatively quiet over the last six months. There have been no antagonistic marketing campaigns and little wow factor to report. Three has its eyes set on the 5G era and all announcements have focused on the preparations.

Currently the UK is sitting in the calm before the storm. EE and Vodafone might have launched their 5G networks already, but the marketing A-Bomb has not been dropped yet. We suspect over the next couple of weeks there will be a marketing blitz as Three and O2 prep themselves to launch; you won’t be able to suck a polo without being bombarded with 5G messaging before too long.

Looking at the financial side of the results, Purkis highlighted there was no reason to be concerned about a slight revenue dip. More customers have been migrated to unlimited data tariffs, removing charges for exceeding data bundles, while international calling regulations have changed, and new accounting principles have been applied. Revenue might have dipped, but the margins have remained.

When talking to Three today and over the last couple of months, the tone has been much more reserved than in previous years. This is a company which is prepping for 5G and there will be much more excitable spokespeople and marketing campaigns when the network is up-and-running.

On the network side, the Nokia 5G core is running and the team are migrating customers onto the new network. IT transformation has continued, as CAPEX increased by 23% over the first six months, and the launch of 20 data centres around the country will shift the mobile experience closer to customers. Three has regularly been criticised for having a poor network in comparison to rivals, though few can say it is doing nothing about it.

This is one perception which will have to be addressed if Three is going to be a major force in the 5G world, though all the signs are looking positive.

“Three’s results held few surprises as it reported a solid if unspectacular performance during the first half of the year,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “The number of active customers nudged up just 1%. This glacial growth illustrates a leading reason why Three sees 5G as a catalyst to reinvigorate its brand and achieve the scale it has long for craved.

“Given its strong position in 5G spectrum – a major advantage over rivals – Three was understandably keen to talk up its 5G credentials once again. When it launches later this month, expect it to focus on unlimited data, low prices and disruption in home broadband.”

Purkis highlighted consumer mobile will remain the core focus of the business moving forward, it is known as the brand for data-intensive users after all, though there are other opportunities to be aware of.

In the home, the 5G FWA offering presents a significant threat to the traditional broadband service providers, demonstrated by the 4G FWA offering which the company already offers. Three currently has 830,000 home broadband customers, a number which could very much increase as increased speeds are offered over the new airwaves.

This diversification to the core mobile business was brought about by the acquisition of UK Broadband in 2017, though it has also offering them a glimpse into the world of enterprise business services.

Enterprise business services represents a very small aspect of the overall Three business now, but this is a big opportunity for the team. With UK Broadband as part of the Three family, the team is learning the tricks of the trade, and in September, Mark Stanfield will join as MD for Enterprise Services adding to the momentum. Stanfield’s role will be to set-up a more complete enterprise business function, which will include more attention for the wholesale segment.

Once again, the consumer business will continue to be the core of Three’s activities, but there are opportunities to attract more revenue through enterprise services. Currently the team are focusing on Small Office and Home Office (SOHO) customers, businesses no-larger than nine people, though once a firm foundation has been created here the team will look to engage larger businesses.

Another opportunity which is being evaluated in the UK Broadband business unit is for private campus networks. UK Broadband MD Ros Singleton is leading the charge here, and while the team currently manages a number of different networks already, it is actively engaged in various tender processes to expand the footprint.

The financial results here are nothing to write home about, but this is a business which is in preparation mode for the 5G era. We suspect there will be bigger things to come here as Three has crafted a position and collected assets to mount a considered challenge to its three larger rivals.