Iliad confirms Nokia for France and Italy 5G push

In a much needed win for Nokia, the Finnish network vendor will be the central cog to the Iliad 5G deployment strategy across France and Italy.

In recent months, Nokia has at times looked like a bit of a suspect partner to work alongside, though that doesn’t seem to bother Iliad that much. In South Korea during April, unnamed officials said all three operators were told to expect delays in receiving 5G base stations, while Sprint in US it was also suggested delays were down to the Finnish vendor’s tardiness.

CEO Rajeev Suri acknowledged the delays, suggesting they were only ‘short-term’ issues, in April’s earnings call, though the chief also tried to shift the blame onto ‘instabilities’ in consumer chipsets. The fact that these issues were not reported by Nokia’s competitors says more than Suri would like.

However, Iliad is an important win for the vendor.

After partnering with Iliad for both its 3G and 4G networks, Nokia would have been confident in retaining the relationship, though it has been losing out over the last 12-18 months. The telco is currently planning its 5G roadmap, with the first base stations set to go live in 2020.

This is somewhat of an important juncture for the telco, which has been licking its own battle wounds over the last couple of financial periods. Despite taking the French market by storm in the early years, Iliad has been suffering at the hands of competition as rivals stepping their own promotional games, chasing down Iliad during the race to the bottom.

The last financial period looked much more promising, though it still has some work to do to repair the damage. In May, Iliad reported an increase in mobile service revenues in France of 2.3%, however the total number of subscribers decreased by 50,000, down to 13.4 million.

The damage was most notable across 2018. Across the first half, Iliad was beaten at its own game, being undercut by rivals and being forced into announced a reduction in profit forecasts. Q1 in 2018 saw churn of 200,000 mobile subscriptions, the first net decline since the introduction of Iliad in 2012. The broadband business suffered the same fate, resulting in roughly a 40% share price crash across the whole of 2018.

Looking at the most recent numbers, there is a bit more stability and perhaps this is where the greatest enthusiasm for an aggressive 5G rollout will emerge from. In both France and Italy, Iliad has an opportunity to generate momentum through the new connectivity euphoria. This is an era which, once again, looks perfect for aggressive pricing and the first to scale 5G across a nation will reap the profits.

The opportunity for Iliad to get back on track is certainly there, it just needs the right partner to help facilitate the rollout and get the company back on track in the 5G world. Iliad executives will be hoping Nokia’s troubles are in the rear-view mirror.

Iliad flogs a bunch of towers to reduce debt pile

French telecoms conglomerate Iliad is selling most of its tower assets in France and Italy to Cellnex for €2 billion.

Iliad has debts in excess of €4 billion and seems to think paying some of them off might be an idea. Fellow French giant Altice has recently had to do a bunch of debt refinancing but it apparently had to pay a premium to do so. European telcos are increasingly inclined to sell and lease back assets like towers to free up cash for 5G investments and that sort of thing.

In France Iliad will be selling 70% of the company that manages 5,700 cell sites to Spanish infrastructure specialist Cellnex, while in Italy it’s offloading the whole company that takes care of 2,200 sites. Right now the whole process is at the ‘exclusive negotiations’ stage but that seems like a formality.

“This transaction is part of a long term industrial strategy allowing us to accelerate rollout of our 4G and 5G networks and to increase Iliad’s investment leeway,” said Thomas Reynaud, Iliad’s CEO. “This transaction supports the group’s new growth and innovation cycle. It enables more efficient infrastructure roll-outs in the future while meeting the challenges of further increasing territory coverage.”

On top of this Cellnext is acquiring 90% of the company that owns 2,800 sites in Switzerland from Salt.

“[These deals] allow us not only to reinforce our position as the main independent infrastructure operator in France, but also to decisively strengthen our platform in Italy, a key a strategic market, and significantly expand our foothold in Switzerland,” said Cellnex CEO Tobias Martinez.

“Furthermore, Cellnex strengthens its role as a neutral host by having two major anchor tenants within its sites network. The combined effect of these agreements is an increase of our current  portfolio across six European countries by more than 50% –to 45,000 sites in total. The latter allows us to properly assess the very quantum leap nature of these deals.

“A greater density and capillarity of our sites networks means a differential added value that enhances Cellnex’s role as a natural partner for all mobile operators in Europe, meeting their densification needs in the current 4G roll-out while accelerating that of 5G.”

Mobile data could get even costlier after T-Mobile and Sprint merger

Report by Rewheel showed Americans already have the most expensive mobile data among all four-operator markets. A move to reduce the number of them could make it worse.

According to the 2H2018 release of its mobile data price monitoring report, the Finland-based research firm Rewheel focused on the US market, which is likely to see the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint closing in the first half of 2019. The report showed that among the 41 countries it analysed (OECD34 + EU28, with seven EU countries not being OECD members), the median gigabyte price of a smartphone deal (nominal price + VAT) in the US is among the highest. Rewheel told Telecoms.com that Greece and Cyprus topped the table, followed by Korea and Canada. The median gigabyte price of a mobile broadband deal in the US is the most expensive among all.

Rewheel mobile data prices

The research compared two groups of markets, those with effectively four mobile operators and those with three. The mobile data price in the four-MNO markets is shown to be about half as expensive as the three-MNO markets, but the US is an outlier. The median US mobile data price per gigabyte is four times higher than the EU four-MNO markets, and sixteen times higher than the big EU markets with four MNOs.

To look at it from another angle, a 30€ monthly deal comes with unlimited data plans (and at least 1000-minute talk time) on smartphones in 13 markets (Korea, Mexico, and 11 EU countries) but can only buy 6GB in the US. Similarly, a 30€ monthly wireless broadband deal can buy unlimited data in 11 EU markets but can only get 40GB in the US.

The effect of the “magic four” driving price down is most telling in Italy: after Iliad launched its mobile service, the price per gigabyte fell by 70% in half a year. On the other hand, the research showed data price stopped falling in the Dutch market after the announced merger of T-Mobile and Tele2, and the price drop has visibly slowed down in Austria after it became a three-MNO market.

The researcher therefore argued that the Americans are already paying more than other four-MNO market users, it could get even worse if the US market became a three-horse race. However we can see in the data that North America is generally more expensive, with Canada, a four-MNO market, is as expensive as the US. Admittedly though, Freedom Mobile is still weak.

An additional angle to examine data price is to look at what is offered to contract users vs. prepaid users, which is excluded from the Rewheel research. The discrepancy is probably most obvious in Africa. According to the analysis published by the research firm Ovum, South Africa’s mobile data is among the highest in the world. This is largely down to the high prices PAYG users face when buying smaller data packages. Rob Shuter, the CEO of MTN, corroborated with his comments at the recent AfricaCom that, despite the average price per gigabyte for postpaid users in Africa is comparable to that of the US (around $3), data prices for prepaid users are prohibitive. The large majority of mobile users in Africa and other emerging markets are on prepaid services.

Iliad Italy hits 2.2 million subscribers in Q3 2018

French telecoms group Iliad has released its Q3 2018 numbers and they reveal continued strong subscriber growth from its new Italian business.

By the end of September Iliad Italy had 2.23 million subscribers, up from a million in mid July. This means the subscriber growth rate slowed a bit, but not much, and there was still plenty of momentum. On top of that Iliad Italy contributed €46 million to group revenues in Q3, having chipped in less than ten prior to that, so Iliad seems to be doing a decent job of monetising those subscribers already.

Iliad Q3 2018

Here’s what Iliad had to say in its quarterly report about its Italian performance:

  • Outstanding commercial success: The Group had over 2.23 million subscribers7 in Italy at end-September 2018, just four months after launching its Italian mobile business. By way of comparison, the Group signed up 2.6 million subscribers in three months when it launched Free Mobile in France.
  • A successful upscaling strategy: The Group successfully introduced two consecutive price increases and enriched its offerings, while pursuing its strong pace of net adds. At September 30, 2018, Iliad’s original offer in Italy was invoiced at €7.99/month, including unlimited calls and texts, as well as 50 GB of 4G/4G+ and 4GB roaming allowance.
  • A recognized brand, with the Iliad brand now widely recognized in Italy: At end-September, four out of five Italians knew the Iliad brand, compared with one out of ten before the launch.
  • Third-quarter 2018 revenues generated by Iliad’s Italian operations totaling €46 million, already representing almost 4% of the Group’s total revenues: This amount comprises (i) the subscription cost (€5.99/month, €6.99/month or €7.99/month depending on the offer) and (ii) SIM card activations carried out during the period, at a price of €9.99 per SIM card.

Over in France revenues declined by 2%, with landline operations and sales of mobile handsets cancelling out growth in mobile subscriber revenues. Iliad just blamed competition for the landline situation and lauded an improvement in subscriber mix (i.e. more postpaid) for the mobile improvement. The main reason for the handset revenue decline was a ‘stricter commercial strategy for rental offers’.

Iliad threatens Italy with legal action over 5G spectrum extensions

Iliad is reportedly on the verge of taking Italian watchdog Agcom to court over licence extensions in the valuable 3.5 GHz band which were offered to various WiMAX operators back in 2008.

After having to defend the almost laughable prices operators will be having to fork out for 5G spectrum, Agcom is now under-fire for considering cut-price extensions for four companies in the 3.5 GHz range. With Iliad Italia forking out €1.2 billion 20 MHz of 3.7 GHz and 10 MHz in the 700 MHz band, you can see why the team has issue with the extensions being offered.

The licenses in the 5G-applicable frequencies were initially granted to Linkem, Tiscali, Go Internet and Mandarin back in 2008, with the option of a six-year extension once the initial license expires in 2023. According to Corriere delle Comunicazioni, all of Italy’s operators are irked at the situation, but Iliad is leading the charge with the threat of taking the regulator to regional courts to dispute the decision.

What is worth noting is this is not taking any of the spoils away from the victors of the expensive auction. Not all of the valuable assets in the 3.4-3.6 GHz frequency range were released for auction, with the remaining licenses being used to honour the extensions. Whether these extensions will be allowed to stand is unknown for the moment, as aside from Iliad protests, Italian Senators have requested an investigation by Ministry of Development boss Luigi Di Maio.

One company which will certainly benefit from the saga is Fastweb, a Swisscom subsidiary which primarily offer broadband services in Italy. Fastweb came to a €150 million wholesale agreement with the cash-strapped Tiscali in 2016 for 40 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band, an absolute steal when you compare to the inflated prices for 5G-capable spectrum in the recent auction. Fastweb might be looking pretty now, but the convergence plans will certainly come under-threat with Iliad legal ambitions.

For those who are of a logical disposition, and considering the inflated figures being discussed in the recent Italian auction, one would think the Italian government would decide against renewing the extensions and offer the available spectrum in an auction. Legacy-agreements are certainly something to consider, though the landscape has seemingly evolved enough over the last decade suggest these extensions are no longer viable.

This certainly will not be the only legacy-agreement in place around the world which will come back to bite, though the saga does not add credibility to the Italian government’s ability to operate in a fair and just manner.

Italy trousers €2 billion in pre-5G 700 MHz auction

A spectrum action in Italy covering a bunch of bands has concluded its first phase with prices roughly in line with expectations.

Bidding is underway on spectrum in the 700 MHz, 3.7 GHz and 26 GHz bands, but only the former has concluded. The starting price was €338 million per 2×5 MHz block of 700 MHz spectrum and TIM, Vodafone and Iliad all got 2×10 paired. Iliad apparently didn’t need to bid but the other two don’t seem to have craven the price up much as you can see from the table below.

Wind didn’t get any 700 MHz spectrum, but seems to be pretty keen on some 3.7 GHz action, having bid €338.5 mil for an apparently pre-specified 80 MHz block of it. TIM is leading the chase for the only other 80 MHz chunk, with Iliad apparently content with 20 GHz and Wind the front runner for the other 20 MHz. A contiguous 100 MHz block of 3.7 GHz would come in handy but it seems likely that Wind is bidding against Vodafone for that bit.

TIM issued an announcement gloating about the fact that it now has spectrum in every sub-1 GHz band available. “This important result increases the frequencies available to TIM which are essential for the 5G services,” said the TIM statement. “The new spectrum will be added to the 20+20 MHz that TIM has in the low frequency 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands, which already ensure the supply of UBB services to more than 98% of the population.”

It seems sensible to have a great big auction of a bunch of different spectrum, given the imminence of 5G in the wild. Iliad has been guaranteed a nice lot of 700 MHz, which will help a lot with coverage, but it might want to have another bid for that bigger block of 3.7 GHz if it want to be a significant 5G player. You can read further analysis on this at Light Reading here.

Italy 700 MHz auction table

Iliad share price continues to tumble as competition heats up

The share price of French telecoms wild-child Iliad has continued to tumble as lukewarm results fail to impress investors looking for a spark in the broadband business.

Since the turn of the year, the erosion of share price has been quite noticeable. Some companies might be able to accept a small blip in performance, but a 45% decline over the last ninth months will certainly have the executive team shifting uncomfortably. Revenues remained relatively stable, however losing 70,000 subscribers in mobile and 47,000 in broadband over the first half of the year is a worrying trend.

Looking specifically at the financial side of the results, total revenues stood at €2.4 billion, a minor decrease on the same six month period of 2017, with mobile rising 2.4% to just over €1 billion and broadband dropping 2.2% to $1.3 billion. Italy brought in €9 million, though the team has been boasting of reaching 1.5 million subscriptions in early August. This seems to be one of the few bright spots in the six months.

Having kicked off the race to the bottom, causing chaos for the incumbent mobile providers during 2012, Iliad seems to be getting a taste of its own medicine with a competitive market being blamed for the tepid performance. Unfortunately for the telco, the misery is not being equally shared as rivals Orange , SFR and Bouygues Telecom all gained subscribers over the same period. Stability in the revenue column might be an uptick, but investors should be concerned about the first drop in mobile subscriptions since the 2012 launch, and a cash-intensive fibre business which is not hitting the marks.

That said, Iliad caused chaos once and has the potential to do it again.

The management team has excepted this performance is not good enough, though various new initiatives will look to return the business to a new growth cycle. On the mobile side of things, new tariffs have been introduced to diversify the subscriber mix, while incentives have been put in place to upgrade users to the more lucrative 4G contracts. 4G subscriptions did increase by 200,000 over the period, and the team are targeting a 25% market share, though have declined to put any deadlines on the objective. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for a lack of confidence in the business, no commitment to top-line objectives.

In the broadband business, a new promotional campaign with competitive prices has been introduced, as well as a play to catch attention through TV services. The content side is yet to be launched, and it will be interesting to see whether Iliad takes the value add or revenue generation approach to content. We suspect with subscribers numbers going south, a value add proposition would be a much more sensible approach to stemming the consistent flow of customers heading towards the exit.

Iliad signs up a million Italian customers in 50 days

Iliad caused chaos in France with the launch of Free Mobile in 2012 and it looks set to repeat the trick in the Italian market.

Launched on May 29, Iliad became Italy’s fourth mobile operator. Competitors have been moaning since, but you cannot argue with the success of the launch. Iliad claimed it was signing up more than 10,000 customers a day in the first month, a trend which seems to have accelerated. 50 days after launching in the ancestral home of pizza, mopeds and questionable hairstyles, Iliad has hit the 1 million subscriber milestone.

The original offer was certainly an aggressive one, 30GB of data, unlimited voice minutes and unlimited texts for just €6 per month, and the Italians have snapped it up. Some might have wondered what the next play would be, this initial offer was only available for the first million customers, though the firm has confirmed it will be extending the offer for the next 200,000 subscribers.

The strategy seems to be simple here; disruption and very little else. Most newcomers aim for disruption as a means to gain a foothold in the industry, but many will also hope to make money simultaneously. With such a deal on offer to customers, you have to wonder where Iliad is going to make any cash, and how long regulators will allow this deal to continue before stepping in.

The status quo has already been shifting in Italy, with many operators attempting to lessen the impact of Iliad’s offer with reduced price tariffs of their own. Vodafone, for example, launched its own cut price brand Ho, offering 30GB of data a month for €7. It might be resisting the temptation to undercut Iliad, but we’ll see how long competitors can stomach the steady flow of customers heading to the exit before the race to the bottom begins.

India is another recent example where a newcomer has caused chaos, with little apparent concern of the cost. Upon launching, Reliance Jio seemingly sacrificed profit in pursuit of scale, though after extending the ‘free’ deal several times, Indian regulators stepped in. Disruption is all well and good, but when an aggressive pricing strategy threatens to bankrupt the telco industry, something has to be done.

Arguably, the sacrifice of profits in pursuit of establishing a comfortable subscriber base worked very effectively. Speaking at Light Reading’s Big Communication Event in Austin, Mathew Oommen, President of Reliance Jio Infocomm, said the company had 186 million subscribers, while the JioTV service has 100 million subscribers and JioChat has 50 million. The foundations were laid in mobile before the team looked to convergence to build profitability elsewhere. Aside from content and chat, the team also have made moves in finance, healthcare and music. The next major step will be in the drastically underdeveloped Indian broadband market.

Iliad can learn from these lessons in Asia, as well as its own disruption in France with Free Mobile in 2012. Considering the telco currently has a 17% market share in its home market, and has started making moves in parallel markets (admittedly with mixed results) there is precedent for the success of the strategy. With quarterly results on the horizon, Iliad needed some good news considering its most recent conversation with the financial markets.

Back in May, following the Q1 results call, Iliad share price crashed by 20%, the largest ever drop for the telco in a single day. Net additions for mobile subs did not meet expectations, while the number of broadband subscribers dipped for the first time in the company’s history. Time will tell whether the team has managed to improve the performance of the business in France, though gaining traction in the Italian market will certainly be welcome news for competitors.

We suspect the pain for Italian competitors will not be over for some time. Iliad will likely continue to stress the market on its own terms, offering loss-leading subscriptions in search of scale, until it is told not to anymore. The Italian market could be a very interesting place over the next couple of months.

Iliad aims to bring French disruption to Italian mobile market

French telco group Iliad has become Italy’s fourth mobile operator and is following the same playbook as it did in France.

Iliad-owned Free Mobile became France’s fourth MNO in 2012 and significantly disrupted the market with an aggressive pricing strategy, leading to much pouting, shrugging and moaning from the three incumbents. The result today is a 17% subscriber share, so Iliad quite reasonably seems to think it’s worth repeating that strategy in Italy.

The brand isn’t Free, or even Libero in Italy, however. The company is simply going for Iliad there, perhaps gambling that the birthplace of the Roman empire will appreciate the classical reference. There seems to have been little fanfare, with the very brief press release pointing hacks towards the Italian language website. Thanks for that Xavier.

The headline deal does seem a very aggressively-priced one. The first million subscribers will get a SIM-only deal that gives 30GB data, unlimited voice minutes and unlimited texts for just €6 per month. That’s so cheap it’s hard to see how Iliad can possibly make any money from it and it will be interesting to see how the company proceeds once it hits that threshold.

The CEO of Iliad Italia, Benedetto Levi, has created a Twitter account to celebrate and apparently intends to use it primarily to pick fights with his competitors a la Legere in the US. Judging by the political turmoil currently taking place in Italy it seems ripe for disruption right now, so we wouldn’t bet against Iliad Italia hitting the million mark pretty quickly.