MTS delivers solid Q1 but provides cautious outlook

Russian operator MTS saw revenues grow 9% in Q1 but believes the whole-year performance is likely to be flat.

MTS has delivered a financially solid Q1 with a total revenue of RUB 119.6 billion ($1.7 billion), up by 8.9% year-on-year. The company’s OIBDA grew by 1.6% to RUB 51.5 billion ($730 million), while net profit improved 0.8% to RUB 17.7 billion ($250 million) compared to the same period of 2019. The strongest growth comes out of its mobile and fixed telecom services, but about half of the top line growth comes from the adjacent businesses, including fintech, digital services, and retail.

“…this is an unprecedented time that is impacting billions of people around the world, including millions of our customers and thousands of our employees,” Alexey Kornya, MTS President and CEO, said during the earnings call. “Connectivity has never been more critical and we are proud to be helping our customers stay in touch with their friends and family as well as colleagues and classmates.

“Overall, I am deeply proud of the MTS team and would like to express my appreciation for their professionalism in this challenging environment. Looking ahead, I am cautiously hopeful for the future, and our strategic focus is clear: supporting our customers today while not losing sight of our goals for tomorrow.”

As Russia entered COVID-19 lockdown only at the end of March, its impact was not reflected in the Q1 results. However, MTS does provide a glimpse into the impact on April and the first half of May.

Similar to other operators that have witnessed during COVID-19, MTS has seen increased traffic but a big drop in retail with many shops are closed. Meanwhile, the operator has seen and expects increased digital activities, in communication, media, and in financial product consumption. In mobile, MTS has received the regulatory approval to implement self-registration SIM cards through an app.

“Looking ahead, we plan to prioritize this channel at the key level to lower subscriber acquisition cost,” said Inessa Galaktionova, First VP for Telecommunications. MTS is “also broadening our SIM-based infection tracking across all of our sales channels.”

“Now more than ever, consumers are shifting to digital-first banking from online customer service to virtual cards and contactless payments,” said Andrey Kamensky, VP for Finance, on the earnings call, suggesting there could be greater benefit for MTS.

Looking at the full-year expectations, MTS’s management is more cautious. Citing concerns including reduced number of retail outlets as well as the impact of lockdown on roaming income, the operator projects a 0% to 3% growth in total revenues and -2% to 0% OIBDA move, compared with 2019.

MTS is the latest of telecoms companies to show that the industry has withstood the uncertainties from COVID-19 well enough especially when it comes to coping with surging traffic, but it is certainly not immune to the impact. Factors ranging from reduced retail and roaming income due to lockdown to overall economic weakness are beyond the telecom operators’ control, but have or will have manifested on telecom operators’ quarterly and annual numbers.

RCS is here to stay and doing well

RCS has been touted as a saviour when the SMS value has been destroyed by OTT messaging services, but without much success, but it may finally have find its moment.

Mavenir, the software company, presented on day 1 of MWC 2019, promoting its rich communication solutions offered by Rakutan. The key benefits, or the main use cases that RCS can differentiate from OTT messaging actually are less to do with taking consumers back to texting each other, or P2P messaging, but rather the communication between businesses and consumers, or A2P messaging.

This view is corroborated by Infobip, a Croatia-based messaging platform that provides aggregated OTT messaging services (e.g. WhatsApp, LINE, Viber, KakaoTalk, etc.) for their corporate clients, which the clients then can use for customer service and CRM. However, the company told Telecoms.com that its dominant business, which it has seen annual growth of between 30% and 40%, is SMS and RCS based services.

One of the use cases is helping businesses improve customer engagement. Despite that on feature comparison RCS is mostly playing catching up on OTT messaging services, SMS and RCS tramp OTTs in consumer trust. To quote Guilliaume Le Mener, Manevir’s SVP for Enterprise Business, RCS is a “clean channel”, not tarnished by the privacy scandals committed by Facebook and co, or the over monetisation by others. Research shared by Mavenir showed 97% of SMS / RCS are opened within 3 minutes.

In one case, Infobip was hired by Twitter to reengage the inactive users, after the social media giant failed the mission with its early efforts through email. Thanks to its rich features, RCS messages can enable users to explore the content directly. For those users on phones not compatible with RCS, brands can choose to fall back on SMS with a web line. The results were much more improved also owing largely to the capability of producing rich analytics to evaluate the campaign effectiveness and make quick decisions on any changes needed.

In addition to A2P messaging, RCS is also being used by brands to engage consumers in P2A, that is engaging directly with the brands through messaging. On the brand side the service can be handled by bots. This will then need to be supported by AI and analytics which will be another business opportunity for the RCS solution providers. With OTTs also actively moving into the P2A domains, again this is an area that operators need to have a stronghold for RCS before it is too late.

For Rakuten, RCS may be particularly meaningful, as, coming from an internet service and MVNO background, Rakuten has a big range of digital service tied to a user’s Rakuten ID. RCS will be a key instrument to maintain and strengthen customer engagement when it builds out its 5G network from ground up.