Investors pressuring AT&T to divest TV assets – report

Reports are circulating the telecoms press pages suggesting AT&T investors are pressuring new CEO John Stankey to sell assets in DirecTV.

According to Fox Business News, ‘bankers’ are pushing for divestment in DirecTV to reduce the heavy debt which are weighing down financial spreadsheets. This is not the first time there have been calls to sell interests in the content units, but the telco has resisted so far, emphasising the importance of streaming and entertainment in the convergence mix.

While debt is something which will always exist in the corporate world (some see the accumulation of debt as a measure of corporate ambition and market confidence), AT&T seems to be in a position which is making investors uncomfortable.

As it stands, AT&T currently has $164.3 billion in debt, $147.2 of which is deemed long-term. Considering how cash-absorbent the telecoms industry is, there will always be debts on the books at AT&T, but this is a company which has made very large bets on the content world, the success of which is very debatable.

During July 2015, AT&T purchased DirecTV for $67.1 billion including assumed debt, and a year later it announced it was acquiring Time Warner for an eye-watering $108.7 billion. The business also has a 2% stake in Canadian entertainment company Lionsgate, as well as several smaller bets. The aims are to add additional revenue streams to the AT&T business, attempt to sell convergence packages and add greater resilience against macroeconomic trends and the commoditisation path the telco industry is treading.

It is of course a valiant quest from the executive team, dipping fingers into additional pies to create a more diversified business, but it is questionable as to how successful the team has actually been.

These are very big gambles to make, working against general consensus in the industry with many rivals choosing to take a content aggregator position, a safer albeit less profitable bet on the platform economy. Of course, doing something different to the status quo is not necessarily a bad thing, it just has to work out well.

The question is whether the telco is any good at managing such a multi-faceted and eclectic business; evidence suggests it is not.

Firstly, the content business unit is incredibly fragmented. We are aware that you need different brands to appeal to different demographics, but it is quite extraordinary at AT&T where you have DirecTV, DirecTV Now, U-verse, HBO Max, HBO Now, HBO Go, Watch TV and DC Universe. It’s scattered, chaotic and overlapping.

Of course, none of this would matter if the unit was growing and making money, which leads us onto the second point. The content division is costing AT&T a lot of money, while subscriptions are disappearing faster than toilet roll in the first days of lockdown. During the latest earnings call, AT&T executives somehow had to defend losing 1.03 million TV subscribers.

Activist investor Elliott Management, which owns roughly 1.2% of AT&T, has already kicked up a stink regarding the diversification strategy, though this is hardly surprising. This is a company which focuses on forcing asset disposal to hike share price. It is a successful business model for Elliott Management, but it is questionable whether the long-term interests of the company is at the heart of the strategy. Forcing AT&T to sell content assets and purely focus on connectivity is not necessarily a sensible idea for the long-term.

CEO Stankey will have his resolve tested in the first few months of his tenure here. He has explicitly stated the DirecTV business unit is not for sale but will also be acutely aware of the dangers of resisting the demands of investors. After all, Stankey was placed in charge of AT&T following Randall Stephenson being ushered out the exit under the guise of retirement.


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A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Full story here


Trump needs fodder for the campaign trail, maybe Huawei fits the bill

A thriving economy and low levels of unemployment might have been the focal point of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, pre-pandemic, but fighting the ‘red under the bed’ might have to do now.

Full story here


Will remote working trends endure beyond lockdown?

It is most likely anyone reading this article is doing so from the comfort of their own home, but the question is whether this has become the new norm is a digitally defined economy?

Full story here


ZTE and China Unicom get started on 6G

Chinese kit vendor ZTE has decided now is a good time to announce it has signed a strategic cooperation agreement on 6G with operator China Unicom.

Full story here


ITU says lower prices don’t lead to higher internet penetration

The UN telecoms agency observes that, while global connectivity prices are going down, the relationship with penetration is not as inversely proportion as you might think.

Full story here


Jio carves out space for yet another US investor

It seems the US moneymen have a taste for Indian connectivity as General Atlantic becomes the fourth third-party firm to invest in the money-making machine which is Jio Platforms.

Full story here


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Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Back in 2016, Workplace by Facebook was announced, an attempt to diversify the Silicon Valley giants output and create a starting point to work with enterprise organisations in way outside of advertising. Much was made of the launch at the time, but it effectively dwindled away into irrelevance over the years as profits failed to materialise.

While none of the senior executives have paid much attention to the business unit, Workplace is very rarely mentioned by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, it has been bundling along in the background. After starting to charge customers for the service in October 2017, Workplace now has more than 5 million paid users, a fraction of rivals but it is admirable for a business unit which has not been given much attention or praise.

Last night would appear to be the relaunch of efforts to crack into a new market, capitalising on remote working trends being forced onto companies of all sizes around the world.

“The coronavirus crisis has forced us to rethink how we work,” said Julien Codorniou, VP of Workplace at Facebook. “Changes expected to happen over several years have happened in just a couple of months. And what many companies have realised is that it’s not about where your people are, but whether they are connected and informed.

“At Workplace we believe strongly that video will be central to the future of work – enabling companies to maintain community, while exploring the opportunities and diversity that flexible working can offer.”

This is of course a very relevant trend for today and could be even more so moving forward. 84% of Telecoms.com readers believed the work from home trend would continue following the relaxation of societal lockdowns, meaning at least some elements of the coerced digital transformation projects which have been sprint through today will remain in place.

Facebook might not be getting in on the ground floor of this trend, but the prior existence of Workplace and the power of the Facebook brand should be enough for it to muscle some benefits and business of the likes of Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and various other businesses which are so richly benefitting from today’s adverse conditions.

As part of this latest push into the enterprise space, ‘Rooms’ has been introduced as a video conferencing feature, Live Video Improvements allows for Town Hall style engagements, Workplace on Portal likes the enterprise push with its consumer IOT gamble, Oculus for Business ties VR into the mix and Work Groups is a productivity and management toolset.

Overall, it is a solid effort to bring a broad set of functionality and features into a single offering, with the opportunity to tie into other emerging elements of the Facebook business. The first attempt to muscle into this market in 2016 might not have been very successful, but this one should certainly be taken more seriously by rivals.


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Will remote working trends endure beyond lockdown?

It is most likely anyone reading this article is doing so from the comfort of their own home, but the question is whether this has become the new norm is a digitally defined economy?

With many economies and sectors dependent on a fully functioning telecoms network and a healthy digital ecosystem, perhaps we should be wondering why the idea of remote working is not more common. Many companies would say they are forward-looking and innovative, but the vast majority were forced through a digital transformation programme by the COVID-19 pandemic, not their own choosing.

The issue with coerced evolution is that there is a temptation to return to the ways of old, heading back to stodgy offices as the unambitious, unimaginative and uninspiring crave the familiarity of the known. Managers might say ‘teams work better when we’re together’ or ‘we’re an industry where it doesn’t work’, but this is probably a cover. The fact that many businesses still function during lockdown shows this is not true.

The office will never become extinct and face-to-face meetings will always be a requirement, but not every day; such resistance is simply an admission of inability to adapt to a changing economy or evolving society. Said managers would probably have fit in very well at Blockbusters when Reed Hastings pitched Netflix.

There are of course some jobs where working from home is an impossibility, but the fact that the economy

Today’s working practice is an extreme. But one would hope organisations at least take some of today’s mobility and incorporate into tomorrow’s operations. Some will revert to the analogue era, convinced that ‘hot desking’ is progress, but hopefully the majority will evolve and learn from this period of rapid transformation.

Of course, what is worth noting is that some serious changes will have to be made to ensure operations are in a healthy and sustainable position. Some companies might be managing the strain of remote working well today, but who knows which straw might be the fatal one.

A recent survey from Cato Networks suggested 55% of respondents experienced an increase of 75%-100% in remote access usage, while 28% saw usage shoot up more than 200%. VPN’s might be the most common form of remote access technologies, but products are bought for a purpose; most will not be designed for the surge above normal requirements.

67% of the respondents to the survey said complaints had been lodged from remote users, where connection instability and slow application response are the leading problems. Cato suggests the VPN might be a choke point in operations as it uses public internet to backhaul traffic to a datacentre or up to the cloud. In short, there will have to be a rethink on how money is spent and on what.

“…on the front-end you’d be looking at redundant VPN servers, ideally in each region where remote users operate,” said Dave Greenfield, Technology Evangelist at Cato Networks.

“For security, you’ll need antimalware and URL filtering. For the backend, you’ll need to connect and secure your cloud applications and resources. This says nothing about any of the management or troubleshooting tools that might be needed to support remote users.”

This is a disruption to business operations, and whenever there is a disruption, there are those who prefer the quieter life of the status quo. Every organisation has individuals who would rather this stay the same and this is the risk today; how many organisations will return to the pre-COVID-19 way of working, rendering these enforced digital transformation projects temporary.

Wind River, a software provider for connected systems and another company hoping to benefit from the pandemic transformation, is suggesting COVID-19 has caused 90% of enterprises to undergo some change in business processes, with 90% of respondents suggesting there has been an impact on being able to meet customer demands. Again, this might force companies back to old ways as some people simply don’t like challenges.

Interestingly enough, the Wind River research also suggests that IT spend on cloud-based application development has and will increase by 35% because of the coronavirus-enforced periods of lockdown. This increases to 62% in China. This shift to cloud-based technologies and processes should theoretically enable mobility in the work and flexibility in working practises.

Ultimately, the issue with some of these survey’s is that decision makers are the respondents, many of whom will say the right things because they believe they are the right things to say. This does not mean they are empowered to make changes or even have the staying power to see through any form of evolution. Sometimes it is best to ask the foot soldiers, those who fight in the trenches each day, those who are slightly more immune to the politics of business and may well give a more straight forward answer.

When asking Telecoms.com readers whether they thought the flexible and remote working conditions would stay, the results are quite interesting.

  • 50% said they would have to check into the office once or twice a week but could work from home
  • 33% believed they would be given complete freedom to work as they please
  • 6% stated they would have to go into the office to do their job properly
  • 6% thought the management team is not convinced by the idea of working from home and the company would revert to old business practices
  • And the final 5% said they would have to go into the office, but others in the company would be allowed to work from home

Of course, the adaptability of employees and employers is one on element of the equation, there will have to be the communications infrastructure in place.

What will be encouraging for all involved is the resilience of networks as internet traffic surges. These networks have not been designed with the current working dynamic in mind, but performance has been maintained.

According to data from Netscout, internet traffic jumped between 25-35% on home broadband networks from mid-March, when most lockdown protocols were being enforced. What is worth noting is this is a global average, some markets have experienced much higher peaks, for example Italy and the UK. But most importantly, networks have not failed because of the increased strain.

Interestingly enough, speaking at a Time Higher Education conference this week, Muhammad Imran, a Professor of Communication Systems at the University of Glasgow, suggested the work from home trends could be aided by the embracement of smart cities initiatives.

The ‘Accessible City’ is an idea which can help people work remotely. Imran has questioned why people should have to move to work in some jobs, a factor which could lead to an offer falling through or being turned down. Not everyone can move for a job, and for some low-income families it could be a barrier to entry.

Remote and flexible working is not only an opportunity to increase employee welfare, but it could also democratize some careers, breaking down social barriers and opening up opportunities for those who would have previously been overlooked.

Another element to consider is whether people are actually better at their jobs when they work from home.

Research from Harvard Business School suggested a 4.4% increase in output from those who have been empowered to work from home, while software company Prodoscore has said productivity could go up by as much as 44%. Numerous research papers have pointed to remote working being a plus to employers, as well as a benefit to employees.

Despite this research, which has been around for years, most executives have resisted the temptation to evolve working practices, leaving the idea of remote and flexible working to be cultivated by others, most of the time digitally native organisations. Some companies, and people, are stuck in their ways and they will not be as attractive to potential employees as others.

Some will embrace the coerced digital transformation, and some might revert back the ways of old. It will be interesting to see which business leaders are stuck in a previous generation.


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Major blow for Google and Apple as Rogan podcast moves exclusively to Spotify

The streaming wars have opened a major new front with the news that Spotify has lured the Joe Rogan Experience away from YouTube and iTunes.

For those unfamiliar with the JRE podcast, it is the defining long-form, open discussion show, featuring completely unstructured conversations between host Joe Rogan and usually one other guest. As a comedian and martial arts commentator, those two topics are covered frequently, but the guest list is very eclectic, ranging from academics to politicians to showbiz figures.

JRE has 8.4 million subscribers on Google-owned YouTube and while that’s a massive number it’s nowhere near the top of the list of all YouTube subscribers. But if you strip out the music and TV brands, it must be right up there. The real traffic for podcasts, however, is from audio streams and downloads, which Rogan himself estimates are around ten times greater that video views. The biggest single platform for that is probably Apple iTunes, on which JRE is the second biggest in the US.

The raw numbers only tell half the story, however, with Rogan’s cultural influence extending even further, especially in the US. US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used a claimed Rogan endorsement for political capital at the start of this year while, more recently, Rogan’s negative assessment of the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden, sent shockwaves across the country and beyond. Most recently, his criticism of how California is handling the coronavirus lockdown seems to have made many residents consider fleeing the state.

So for Spotify to lure Rogan away from these two internet giants with a deal that will be exclusive from the start of next year is a major victory and a significant blow to its competitors. The WSJ reports that it cost Spotify $100 million, which is serious money. While that’s great news for Rogan, we will probably never know if it pays off for Spotify, but if Netflix (where you can find Rogan’s excellent standup) is anything to go by, paying for big names is the way forward.

As you may have gathered your correspondent is a big fan of JRE. At a time when public discussion seems to be more shrill, polarised and dumbed-down than ever, Rogan offers the kind of honest, nuanced, agenda-free discussion that is desperately needed. JRE fans not currently on Spotify will have some serious thinking to do at the start of the year and the Swedish streaming giant is betting a lot of the new users Rogan brings will upgrade to premium services.

The only thing that could go wrong is for Spotify to in any way try to alter the format or censor the often colourful content. Netflix hasn’t and it would be very surprising for Rogan to agree to any such interference. “While Spotify will become the exclusive distributor of JRE, Rogan will maintain full creative control over the show,” assures the Spotify announcement.

To date the streaming wars have largely focused on video content, but this move brings audio to the fore. Once people start commuting again, podcasts will be more important than ever and it increasingly looks like you need to be a Spotify user if you want access to the best ones.

Incidentally the only pod more popular than JRE in the US is currently in the middle of a drama over switching platforms. It may be no coincidence the YouTube recently lured its biggest star, PewDiePie, back from a rival platform. In these fractious times, authenticity has become a precious commodity, one that the internet giants are prepared to pay top dollar for.


Brits have the lowest mobile download speed among G7 users

New report on mobile experience from Opensignal shows the UK has the lowest average download speed among the G7 countries, and it has barely improved since a year ago.

The user experience measurement company has just published its 2020 report to compare mobile experience in 100 countries across six domains: upload and download speed, video, voice and games experience, and 4G availability. On all parameters the UK has delivered a respectable but not spectacular performance.

In download speed, the UK ranks 36 out of the 100 countries, with an average 22.9 Mbps. This puts the UK on the bottom of the G7 countries. The minor improvement of 1.2 Mbps over last year’s 21.7 Mbps is also the most meagre incremental among the G7 countries. Globally, Canada just manages to edge South Korea to the top spot with 59.6 Mbps, a whopping 17.1 Mbps increase from a year ago. South Korea, which topped last year’s table, has clocked up an average download speed of 59.0 Mbps and sits in second place.

The authors of the report observed that, countries that have launched 5G services typically registered higher download speed and registered bigger increase than those that have not. However, with the exception of South Korea, where 5G penetration is approaching 10% of mobile users, 5G’s lifting impact on average download speeds in other countries is minimal. Surprisingly, among the 5G countries, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all reported average download speed decrease. The report does not say why, and by the time of writing, Opensignal has not responded to Telecoms.com’s request for explanation. In a separate research published earlier the company compared 5G download speeds in different countries. Saudi Arabia led with 291 Mbps, followed by South Korea at 224 Mbps.

The G7 Comparison

The UK’s 7.5 Mbps average upload speed gives it a mid-table position. Switzerland leads with 16.2 Mbps, followed by South Korea (16.1 Mbps), Norway (15.7 Mbps), and Singapore (15.0 Mbps).

In video streaming experience, by which the company consolidates scores on picture quality, video loading time, stall rate, as well as perceived video experience as reported by mobile video users, the UK sits in the “Very Good” category with a score of 71.7 (out of a total of 100). The “Excellent” category, with scores over 75, has 15 countries, led by the Czech Republic with 79.1.

When it comes to 4G availability, UK mobile users were able to connect to 4G networks 89.2% of the time, up by 4.5% from a year ago, putting the country on position 31 in the table. Japan sits on the top with 98.5% availability closely followed by South Korea at 98.1%.

In games experience, the company measures how mobile users experience real-time multiplayer mobile gaming on mobile networks including latency, packet loss, and jitter. The Netherlands comes top in this category with 85.2 (out of a total of 100), edging the Czech Republic to the second place with a score of 85.1. The UK, with a score of 77.5, ranks among the better ones but is still trailing the best countries by a sizeable margin.

The last category measured in the Opensignal report is voice app experience, by which the company measures the quality of experience of OTT voice services like WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook Messenger. Again, the score consolidates both technical measurements and perceived experience. South Korea leads the table with 84.0 (out of 100). Japans comes a close second with 83.8. The UK’s 80.6 is among the better scores.

In general, to look at it globally, UK mobile users enjoy a better than average experience across multiple categories. Meanwhile the benefits of 5G have yet to visibly spread more broadly. In the 5G research published by Opensignal, the UK’s 5G smartphones only connect to 5G networks in slightly over 5% of the time.

Latest Quibi damage limitation exercise does anything but

The CEO of new video streaming service Quibi has turned to the press once more to address its faltering launch, but he continues to score own-goals.

Jeffrey Katzenberg has impeccable credentials as a video content exec, having founded DreamWorks and headed up Walt Disney Studio. He is the joint CEO of smartphone-focused streaming service Quibi alongside experienced tech CEO Meg Whitman and thus ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the venture, which has received billions in venture funding.

It would be fair to say that, right now, the numbers for Quibi are not what was hoped. Three weeks ago Katzenberg said the following in an interview: “Under the circumstances, launching a new business into the tsunami of a pandemic, we actually have had a very, very good launch.” Either that assessment was misleading, or Quibi’s fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse since then, because he’s singing a very different tune now.

Speaking to the NYT, Katzenberg said: “I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus, everything. But we own it.” He seems to be trying to completely exonerate himself from any underperformance while at the same time claiming to do the opposite. Not a great start, regardless of how plausible the excuse is.

That wasn’t the last of the doublespeak. “If we knew on March 1, which is when we had to make the call, what we know today, you would say that is not a good idea,” said Katzenberg in response to a question about the timing of the launch. “The answer is, it’s regrettable. But we are making enough gold out of hay here that I don’t regret it.” It’s regrettable, but he doesn’t regret it, OK?

In response to the disappointing launch Katzenberg and co have been desperately trying to tweak the offering to broaden its appeal. They initially left out the ability to cast the content from your phone to your TV, apparently out of a desire to avoid diluting its smartphone specialness, but soon reversed that decision. Now the penny seems to have dropped that allowing some sharing of content online might help spread the word.

“There are a whole bunch of things we have now seen in the product that we thought we got mostly right,” said Katzenberg, “but now that there are hundreds of people on there using it, you go, ‘Uh-oh, we didn’t see that.’” Again, a perfectly normal part of refining a new product, but it’s hard to see how the previous ‘walled off’ approach was ever considered a great idea.

Part of the problem, on top of the pandemic, could be that Katzenberg is used to heading up operations that already have massive brand recognition and value. Disney can afford to limit the distribution of its content and over-charge for it because its unique and highly sought-after. The same it not true of Quibi, so acting all haughty and distant from the start would probably have been a bad idea no matter when it was launched.

A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


O2 and Virgin Media are merging to form BT-busting connectivity giant

Telefonica and Liberty Global have confirmed plans to merge UK operations, O2 and Virgin Media, to challenge the connectivity market leader BT.

Full story here.


privacyHalf of Americans approve of using smartphones to track infected individuals

Pew Research Center asked thousands of US adults what they thought about how personal data should be used to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Full story here.


CSPs are being cut out of enterprise 5G projects – study

A new bit of research conducted by Omdia and BearingPoint//Beyond has found that only a small proportion of B2B 5G deals are being done by operators.

Full story here.


Streaming venture leads Disney to 29% revenue surge

The Walt Disney company has reported a 29% increase for year-on-year revenues thanks to its streaming bet, but COVID-19 has forced the team to withhold dividend payments.

Full story here.


Silver Lake pays a premium for a chunk of Jio Platforms

Private equity firm Silver Lake has shelled out $750 million for a 1.15% stake in the Indian telco, which represents a 12.5% premium on the price Facebook recently paid.

Full story here.


Online gaming seems coronavirus proof, but is it recession proof?

Online entertainment and gaming companies are seeing COVID-19 surges in revenues, but are these businesses in a position to resist the pressures of a global recession?

Full story here.

O2 and Virgin Media are merging to form BT-busting connectivity giant

Telefónica and Liberty Global have confirmed plans to merge UK operations, O2 and Virgin Media, to challenge the connectivity market leader BT.

Since the end of the Supply Chain Review, the UK telecoms market has been relatively mundane, operating as one would largely expect, however this merger throws a cat amongst the pigeons. All of a sudden, the UK has become on the most interesting markets to watch, with the promise of a second convergence connectivity business to rival market leader BT.

“Combining O2’s number one mobile business with Virgin Media’s superfast broadband network and entertainment services will be a game-changer in the UK, at a time when demand for connectivity has never been greater or more critical,” said Telefónica CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete. “We are creating a strong competitor with significant scale and financial strength to invest in UK digital infrastructure and give millions of consumer, business and public sector customers more choice and value.”

“We couldn’t be more excited about this combination,” said Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global. “Virgin Media has redefined broadband and entertainment in the UK with lightning fast speeds and the most innovative video platform. And O2 is widely recognized as the most reliable and admired mobile operator in the UK, always putting the customer first. With Virgin Media and O2 together, the future of convergence is here today.”

Talks emerged earlier this week, though they certainly got to the official confirmation stage quicker than many were expecting.

As part of the agreement, a 50-50 joint venture will be created, with the promise to spend more than $10 billion on network development over the next five years. Synergies are expected to be as much as £6.2 billion, with 46 million subscribers, 15 million homes passed for broadband, 99% population coverage for mobile, 18,700 employees and £11 billion in revenue.

Full details on the deal can be found on a new website, proudly proclaiming the creation of a national digital champion.

This all sounds very promising, but when the merger is complete in mid-2021, which brand will survive?


What should a merged O2/Virgin Media company be called?

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“In the long run, we believe it would be better for the JV to retain the O2 brand at the expense of Virgin Media,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Both have a strong presence, but O2’s respected customer service, highly loyal customers and sponsorship of the O2 arena mean it is impossible to drop. A multi-brand approach serves only to duplicate costs and risks confusing customers.”

For convergence to work, there can only be one brand which survives. BT’s £12.5 billion of EE has arguably not paid off to date as the two brands still exist, effectively creating two separate business units inside the same group. There might be convergence benefits from an operational perspective, but to realise the gains from a customer and commercial angle, the businesses have to be fully consolidated and coherent.

BT has never really been able to take advantage of its assets. It has the largest mobile network, the largest broadband network, the largest public wifi footprint and the largest bank accounts to throw cash at content. Its inability to evolve into a convergence-defined business has opened the door for O2 and Virgin Media. But the question is whether the duo can learn from these mistakes.

Ultimately this is a major threat to the BT business, not because this is a combination which can potentially match the scale and depth of BT services, but these are also two currently healthy businesses which are coming together.

Financial Results for O2 and Virgin Media to March 31 (UK sterling (£), millions)
O2 Virgin Media
Total Year-on-year Total Year-on-year
Revenue 1,739 2.9% 1,266 -0.6%
Profit 516 2.4% 84 >1000%

Sources: Liberty Global Investor Relations and Telefonica Investor Relations

Usually, when mergers and acquisitions are discussed, one of the parties is a significantly stronger position than the other. It can still be good news, but there is plenty of work to do during the integration stages to ensure the new company is fighting fit. This is not the case with O2 and Virgin Media.

Virgin Media might have experienced a bit of a downturn over this three-month financial period, but this could likely be attributed to dampened customer acquisition amid the COVID-19 outbreak, while O2 has demonstrated year-on-year increases once again.

While these are healthy businesses right now, some might have suggested limited success in the convergence game would have caught up eventually. This is a very encouraging move forward, getting ahead of negative impacts, though a renewed assault on TV/content is needed. Neither, despite what Virgin Media claims, have done very well in this segment.

Current subscriber numbers for O2 and Virgin Media
Mobile Broadband Content
O2 35,266,217 29,085 *
Virgin Media 3,179,500 5,271,000 3,687,400

Source: Omdia World Information Series

*Too early to tell how successful the partnership with Disney+ to add a content element to O2 bundling has been

One area which should be allocated to the risk column, though it is a very minor risk, is the prospect of regulatory intervention.

“Unlike when O2 attempted to join forces with Three in 2015 but was blocked by the European Commission, I don’t expect there to be any major hurdles to this deal going through,” said Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk. “After all, with BT’s purchase of EE given the all-clear in 2016, it’s difficult to see how a case could be made to block it.”

These are both telecoms companies, but service overlap is minimal. Core competencies lie in different segments, and while there have been attempts to launch into parallels, success has been woeful. These are complementary companies with little material service overlap.

When considering whether competition authorities will be interested, you have to ask whether the merger would make single business units stronger or is the company stronger by association with parallel services. O2’s mobile business will not be enhanced materially by Virgin Media’s MVNO proposition, and Virgin Media will not benefit from O2 at all in the fixed connectivity game. There does not seem to be any case for objection on the grounds of competition.

Aside from the direct impact for both Virgin Media and O2, the rest of the market could be spurred into action.

“Vodafone UK appears the biggest loser as the deal lays bare its weak position in the market for converged services,” said CCS Insight’s Mann. “It also looks certain to scupper its virtual network partnership struck with Virgin Media in 2019. We think this deal will trigger a ripple effect on the UK market: Vodafone, Three, Sky and TalkTalk will all be assessing their positions and further deal-making can’t be ruled out.”

This is a challenge to the industry and will create a rival to BT in mobile, broadband, convergence and enterprise. However, it is also worth remembering the ‘also rans’.

Unless the ambitions of rivals are inspired by this threat, the prospect of a tiered connectivity industry could emerge, with those offering bundled services on top and the pureplay service providers on the bottom.

The UK has quickly become one of the worlds’ most interesting telecoms markets, thanks to the permutations which could be inspired by this merger.

Tier One Tier Two Tier Three
  • BT (mobile, broadband, content)
  • O2/Virgin Media (mobile, broadband)
  • Sky (content and broadband)
  • Vodafone (mobile and broadband)
  • TalkTalk (broadband)
  • Three (mobile)
  • MVNOs
  • Alt-nets

Online gaming seems coronavirus proof, but is it recession proof?

Online entertainment and gaming companies are seeing COVID-19 surges in revenues, but are these businesses in a position to resist the pressures of a global recession?

With many countries around the world entering into recession due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, online gaming companies will face challenges like never before. Let’s not forget, this is a segment which did not exist during the last major financial downturn, the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008, and it is almost entirely reliant on discretionary income.

This is of course a massive question which should not be taken at surface value, but the up-coming recession has the potential to completely turn this industry on its head. However, for the moment, there is money to be made thanks to circumstance.

How are the gaming companies getting on now?

In short; very well.

Activision Blizzard has released its 2020 first quarter results, and while the figures might be down on the same period of 2019, outlook is considerably better than the forecasts provided by the company on February 6.

Total revenues for the three months ending March 31 were $1.79 billion, down 2.1% year-on-year, but 9% up on the guidance which was offered to investors in February. This guidance was offered before the full impact of COVID-19 was comprehendible, so it understandable that estimates were off.

The Call of Duty title has been credited with much of the success, most notably the mobile game which was launched in late-2019 and the Warzone addition. Warzone was launched under a free-to-play business model, with in-game purchases, and has attracted more than 60 million users.

Elsewhere, Electronic Arts has also released financial statements for the period ending March 31. Total revenues for the three months increased 14.4%, 3% higher than what was forecast in January while net income was up 5% on the guidance offered. Digital revenues now account for 78% of the total, a transformation which has been taking place over the last few years.

FIFA 20 and Madden NFL 20 both excelled for Electronics Art in the sports gaming segment, with the latter recording the “highest engagement levels in franchise history”, while Apex Legends was the most downloaded free-to-play game on the PlayStation platform in 2019 and continued to excel through 2020.

These are only two examples of gaming companies who have benefitted from societal lockdown protocols, but there are numerous others including Microsoft with Xbox and its cloud gaming platform Project xCloud.

In short, more people are locked in doors and need entertaining. More are turning to gaming.

Telco data backs up the financials

With more people staying at home, there was a risk strain would be placed on broadband networks as these are assets which have not been deployed with the current societal lockdown in mind.

Video conferencing is on the up, content streaming is skyrocketing, and gaming is entertaining adults and children alike. All of these elements add up to pressure on the network, though many are performing admirably.

In March, Telecom Italia Luigi Gubitosi suggested network traffic had increased by as much as 70% in some regions, with Call of Duty and Fortnite usage some of the more prominent contributors. Performance of the networks were a worry, but these fears have now been addressed.

Who should we be keeping an eye on?

There are a lot of companies who will be releasing financial statements over the next week, all of which will be inclusive of at least some of the lockdown period.

  • 7 May: Nintendo
  • 13 May: Tencent
  • 13 May: Nexon
  • 13 May: Sony
  • 14 May: Ubisoft

Due to the number of private companies and start-ups in this segment, it is difficult to gain full visibility into the financial gains, but usage reports and download statistics can help. Ultimately, it is a fair assumption this is a segment of the technology industry which is benefitting from the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

The financial risks have been predicted

In October 2019, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) held a press conference during which the risk of indebtedness was discussed in detail.

“In the event of a material economic slowdown, the prospects would be sobering,” said Tobias Adrian, Director of the Monetary and Capital Markets Department of the IMF.

“Debt owed by firms unable to cover interest payments with earnings, which we refer to as corporate debt at risk, could rise to $19 trillion in a scenario that is just half as severe as the global financial crisis.”

$19 trillion would account for 40% of the total corporate debt in the worlds’ eight largest economies. Of course, much of this rhetoric refers to traditional organisations and those who are already in precarious situations, but it does demonstrate risk.

Adrian stated six months ago that there was a corporate debt bubble building. The accessibility of borrowing facilities over the last decade, as well as tendency to stretch asset valuations, has led to a tsunami of debt. External debt has risen to 160% of exports according to Adrian, compared to 100% in 2008.

This does not necessarily directly correlate to the online gaming sector, but it is good to place the current situation into context. Last October, the IMF warned of a corporate debt bubble which would burst during a recession, compounding the misery and extending the financial downturn. This is the reality which the world is facing today.

Could be a short, but sharp downturn

Coutts bank has recently suggested the financial downturn would be a recession, but the depth would not extend to a depression.

“The current recession will without doubt be very deep and widespread,” the company said in a blog post. “Unemployment has risen significantly, and a wide range of sectors are affected.

“But we think the recession will be short-lived, and that’s the key to our cautious optimism. With economic activity plunging so deeply, even a slow, partial re-opening of the economy is likely to lift activity from these extreme lows.”

Although financial data demonstrated the downturn has been dramatic, there are few deep-seated systemic problems standing in the way of a recovery. The economy will not bounce back overnight, but recovery should be swift assuming there is not a secondary wave of infections.

This is the big question which many companies will be facing; how long will the recession last?

There will be an inflection point on the horizon

Companies who are benefiting from the societal lockdown will have to be wary of the inflection point in fortunes.

People being locked indoors is fine for a while, but soon enough it will start having a very material impact on the economy. When this happens, unemployment could rise, and consumer spending habits are altered. Discretionary income could disappear, and belts would be tightened as a result.

In this scenario, money spend on online gaming habits would almost certainly be cut back, turning the fortunes into flounders.

What is worth noting is this is based on assumption. The online gaming segments were nowhere near as prominent as they are today. In 2008, online gaming was a niche, it was pre-4G hitting mainstream markets while few console games had the internet appeal they do today. eSports would have been considered an absurd idea.

We cannot explicitly state what would happen to the gaming industry during a recession, as there is no precedent, but it is a safe assumption that it would not do very well.

What could happen?

Speculation is always a good bit of fun and should the gaming industry head towards uncomfortable times there certainly could be a dramatic amount of disruption.

There are of course multinational corporations who have profited from the shift to online gaming, but there are numerous start-ups who have shot to fame on the back of a viral hit. The likes of Angry Birds catapulted Rovio to fortunes, while Imangi Studios has experienced sustained success from less complex games such as Tempe Run.

Outside these blockbuster hits, there are thousands of developers who have profited handsomely from online gaming, ensuring the ecosystem is incredibly wide and diverse. Many of these companies are still private, spurred on by revenues flowing through the app economy. Should a recession halt this flow of cash, these companies would suffer.

Industry consolidation could be a reality, with multi-nationals snapping-up cut-price opportunities. Tencent is one company which has grown via acquisition, taking up stakes in the likes of Riot Games, Supercell, Activision Blizzard, Glu Mobile and Grinding Gears Games. Organisations like this must be licking their lips with a prospect of a recession; an opportunity to grow a digital empire through the acquisition of distressed assets.

Venture Capitalists will also have an eye on this area, though this would allow the start-ups to maintain some level of independence. They may have to hand over stakes at depreciated valuations to do so, however.

Interestingly enough, a recession could also present a significant opportunity for the ad-supported, free games. Online advertising demand might decrease, but it certainly wouldn’t disappear entirely. And consumers will still have to be entertained. This could supercharge a segment which is often overlooked in favour of more attractive cousins in the online gaming ecosystem.

Just enough but not too much

The fortunes of the online gaming industry are hanging in the balance somewhat. Yes, societal lockdown is benefiting this segment right now, but recovery will need to come before the inflection point.

The longer this lockdown persists, the greater the risk of a longer-term recession and a downturn for the online gaming segment. Just enough lockdown is a profit machine, too long could mean a very detrimental net loss.