RCom boss opts to pay Ericsson bill rather than go to prison

Indian telco Reliance Communications owed kit vendor Ericsson millions of dollars but didn’t feel like paying up. The threat of jail time seems to have changed its mind.

At the start of the year Ericsson requested RCom Chairman Anil Ambani be locked up unless his company settles its debts but a couple of months later it still hadn’t coughed up. The Indian court gave him until 19 March to find the cash and now, with one day to spare, it’s being widely reported that Ambani managed to scrape together enough shrapnel to remain a free man.

The precise amount handed over was 462 crore rupees, which we’re going to take Reuters’ word for that being equivalent to around $67 million because we can’t get our head around India’s number system. That still seems to leave $10 million or so outstanding, but is presumably enough to placate the Indian courts for now.

Had he not paid Ericsson Ambani would have been held in contempt of court because it had been judged that he had the cash handy, but just felt like holding onto it. We’ve all felt that from time to time and, if we’re honest, sometimes it’s only the law that keeps us honest. RCom’s shares were down 9% at time of writing and are trading at around the quarter of their price a year ago.

Vodafone CEO bemoans Jio effect on India

The Indian consumer might be surging into the digital economy at an unprecedented speed, but the telcos are certainly not reaping the rewards according to Vodafone CEO Nick Read.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Read pointed towards consumers which are consuming more data every single day (12 GB a month on average), as well as unsustainable business models and regulations which favour no-one except the disruptive influence of Jio. It isn’t necessarily a picture which creates an encouraging view of the market.

“We only ask for a level playing field,” said Read, bemoaning regulatory and competition rulings made in the country.

It seems Reid believes there has been an institutional preference towards the newest entrant into the Indian telco regime. This is also a company which is forcing the market to create artificially low tariffs, an unsustainable position for the market to maintain. What impact this has on the long-term prospects of India’s digital dream remain to be seen.

While it is hardly unusual for the CEO of a losing telco to moan about unfair market conditions, there have been some credible points made. Jio did certainly disrupt the market, helping the country move into the digital era, but there was certainly consequence. The aggressively low tariffs saw numerous telcos exit the space, either closing-down operations, merging with a rival or declaring bankruptcy.

Vodafone was one of those victims, currently in the process of merging its operations with long-term rival Idea Cellular. Reid highlighted he has been over to India to review the plans recently, and the team has managed to reduce the integration process from four years to two, but it is still losing money. That said, it is not alone.

The issue which remains here is what happens if this trend of Jio destruction is allowed to continue. How many more telcos will disappear from the landscape (there are only effectively four left, including government owned BSNL) before the government steps in to do something. The current position is not exactly ideal.

As it stands, India currently have four major telcos to provide connectivity services for roughly 1.3 billion people. Europe has roughly 160 telcos for a population of 500 million. Although many would argue there needs to be consolidation in the European space, the shortage of options in India is not exactly ideal. The risk of regionalised monopolies is certainly present.

Of course, the newly merged Vodafone Idea business is not lying down while Jio runs riot throughout India, Reid highlighted a Rights Issue is currently underway with the business hoping to raise $3.5 billion. Not only will this help the businesses merge and update infrastructure, it would be fair to assume some pretty aggressive counter-strikes against Jio.

India is one of the most interesting markets worldwide right now, but there is certainly a risk of the landscape devolving into chaos. Whether the Indian government is sympathetic to Reid’s plight remains to be seen, though current trends should not be allowed to continue.

China plummeting and India soaring but Apple just can’t get a break

IDC had a stab at smartphone shipments in two of the worlds most lucrative markets, and it does not make pleasant reading for Apple.

As the Apple management team has now decided against dishing out the specifics on iPhone shipments in the quarterly statements, analysts are the closest we’re going to get for sales figures. Here, IDC is suggesting a sluggish market overall in China, with iPhone sales dropping considerably, while the Indian market is booming, but Apple can’t claim a slice of the action.

Starting with the Indian market, IDC estimates 142.3 million units were shipped across 2018, demonstrating a 14.5% year-on-year increase, though the final quarter saw a 15.1% sequential decline. This might not look as bad as it originally sounds however, as Q4 actually increased year-on-year 19.5%, suggesting the third quarter was just exceptionally positive.

“Amongst the big highlights of 2018 were the online-focused brands that drove the share of the online channel to an all-time high of 38.4% in 2018 and a whopping 42.2% in 2018Q4,” said Upasana Joshi of IDC. “This was primarily driven by several rounds of discounts by e-tailers driving affordability through various financing options, cashback offers and buyback schemes.”

The Jio effect is clearly sustainable across the country as Indian consumers appetite for the digital economy continues to grow. With the disruptive telco promising further expansion, greater digital inclusivity and additional services over the coming months, more consumers might be encouraged to upgrade to more premium devices. As Joshi notes, the premium end of the market was the fastest growing price segment, demonstrating 43.9% year-on-year growth.

What will be worrying for the iLeader is the inability to get a foothold in the market and capture the attention of Indian consumers. India is traditionally a market driven by low-end devices, however the encouraging growth of handsets priced north of $500 should offer some traction for Apple.

Xiaomi led the market, having recently overtaken Samsung, with 28.9% of total shipments, a healthy 58.6% increase from 2017. Samsung collected 24.7% of Indian devices sales, while Vivo had 10%, Oppo 7.2% and Transsion with 4.5% completes the top five vendors. The remaining 27% of shipments were shared through multiple vendors, Apple included, though the bundled peloton chasing the leading five saw total sales drop by 10.7% year-on-year.

With sales across the world seemingly declining for Apple, the booming Indian market is one it can ill-afford to miss out on. Last year, it announced it was moving manufacturing into the country, with partner Foxconn aiming to be up and running in early 2019, while there are also plans to expand the retail footprint. The team reportedly plan to open three massive stores in both Delhi and Mumbai, owing to the success of retail operations elsewhere around the world.

While India might be a headache due to the iLife indifference of the locals, China is turning into a full-blow migraine for completely separate reasons.

IDC estimate Apple’s smartphone shipments have declined by 19.9% in China, while the home favourite Huawei saw its own shipments grow by 23%. Apple’s loss is Huawei’s gain, though it does appear the iChief is losing its prestige badge in the market.

These figures are of course estimates, as Apple has decided against telling anyone about specific shipment numbers, though the revenues over the last quarter give a decent idea. During the last quarterly results, revenues for the Greater China region declined by roughly 26% from $17.9 billion to $13.1 billion. In years gone, Apple used to be able to simply release a new colour variant of flagships and China consumers would be queuing out the door, but the bonanza is over for the moment.

The big question is why? Of course, there will be a preference from some for local brands, and there will of course be the cash-conscious. But ultimately you have to wonder whether Apple is living up to the brand promise which it spend so many years cultivating; where is the innovation?

Over the last decade, Apple has crafted a brand which is built on the principles of innovation and technological supremacy. Steve Jobs was the figurehead of this image, and many Apple enthusiasts were prepared to pay the premium on devices because of this identity. However, in recent years, Apple has done little to differentiate its devices and justify the pricing premium which is placed on products. Of course, this is not just Apple, innovation has stuttered across the segment, but gone is the assumption Apple immune to market trends.

With revenues declining across the international markets, and Apple set to sit out the initial 5G devices euphoria over the next couple of months, 2019 is starting to look like a very uncomfortable year for Apple.

If you thought your January was tough, Vodafone Idea just lost 35mn subs

Most people consider January one of the worst months of the year, but Vodafone Idea could potentially trump your misery after reporting a year-on-year decline of 35 million subscriptions.

As is now commonplace with any CEO of a major business, Balesh Sharma was all a twirl spinning off the tough times of the quarter as positives, and in fairness there are some valid points. From a financial perspective, total revenues decreased 2% year-on-year to roughly £1.27 billion, while total subscriptions declined from 422.3 million in Q3 to 387.2 million for the last three months.

“We are progressing well on our stated strategy,” said Sharma. “The initiatives taken during the quarter started showing encouraging trends by the end of the quarter.

“We are moving faster than expected on integration, specifically on the network front, and we are well on track to deliver our synergy targets. We remain focused on fortifying our position in key districts by expanding the coverage and capacity of our 4G network, and target a higher share of new 4G customers, while offering an enhanced network experience to our customers. The proceeds from the announced capital raise will put us in a strong position to achieve our strategic goals.”

Looking at Sharma’s reasons, firstly on the revenues it might not be as bad as it looks. The most recent figures are being compared to a period where the two firms accounting policies were not aligned, while there was always going to be a bit of heavy going through the initial integration process. On the subscriptions front, the team blamed the fact that various customers consolidated spending from multiple to single SIMs.

On the 4G side of things, the total subscription base did increase to 75.3 million, up 9.5 million during the quarter, while coverage has also increased. The combined business is starting to generate notable benefits, national roaming was introduced on both networks, with each brand now offering 4G across all 22 service regions. During the three months, 11,123 4G sites were added to the network.

At first glance, this might not be the most comfortable reading, but you have to bear in mind this is a business which is starting to find its feet. Merging two businesses is never the easiest of jobs, but with the threat of Reliance Jio causing havoc everywhere Indian telco executives look, the pressure is certainly higher.

Reliance Jio has forced evolution onto the Indian telco industry, with victims scattered all over the landscape. The Telenor evacuation was first, Airtel is flagging, Reliance Communications has been decimated and the merger between Vodafone and Idea was the other major casualty. The team has to be given time to create a business which can provide suitable resistance to the Reliance Jio momentum, but Sharma will be wary he doesn’t have much.

Jio claims another scalp as RCom is down and out

Reliance Communications has arguably gotten the sharpest end of the Jio stick over the last couple of years, but it seems the misery is finally over as the firm files for bankruptcy.

According to The Times of India, Chairman Anil Ambani has approached the National Company Law Tribunal to file for bankruptcy after a torrid couple of months which capped off a horrendous a couple of years. Although the team thought there might be some salvageable assets in a deal with Reliance Jio, this might prove to be the final chapter of the telco story for Anil.

Over the last couple of months, RCom has been attempting to navigate the red-tape maze to sell spectrum assets to Reliance Jio, though this transaction has been blocked due to no-one tackling responsibilities for debts owed to the Department of Telecommunications. The DoT was not willing to greenlight the deal until it had reassurances, though with RCom not able to pay and Jio not willing to, the deal entered a stalemate.

Of course, the plot thickens when you consider this cash was supposed to help RCom pay off various other debts, including one to Ericsson, which had been attempting to get Ambani arrested and imprisoned over the monies owed. It has all seemingly fizzled out into somewhat of a depressing end for RCom.

15 years ago, however, this would have been far from imaginable. The firm used to be one of the more promising telcos in a relatively lifeless market. India has long been one of the ‘BRIC’ nations, with potential fortunes enough to convince many to make a bet on the market. However, incumbent players were happy with the status quo and India fell behind the rest of the world in the digital rankings. That was until Anil’s brother Mukesh turned up with his new business Reliance Jio.

Reliance Jio changed the rules of the game and offered a disruptive data-driven service which appealed to the Indian consumer. Soon enough millions of Indians were ditching traditional telcos in pursuit of the glories hidden in digital society. RCom did not adapt and is now suffering the consequences of standing still for a decade.

RCom now joins a growing list of casualties in India. With the Vodafone/Idea merged business planning its assault, you have to hope this ‘new’ player will be able to offer some resistance to the Reliance Jio momentum. Although this is an admirable success story, there are a worryingly small number of telcos for such a vast market.

Vodafone blames accounting change for €800mn revenue decline

Vodafone has unveiled its quarterly results for the period ending December 31, and while a year-on-year decline of €800 million might worry some, it’s not as bad as you think.

The team claims it has performed pretty much in-line with expectations and the same period of 2017, however a shift over to the IFRS15 accounting standard, the sale of the Qatar business and FX headwinds caused the decline. In other words, it’s all the fault of the bean counters.

“We have executed at pace this quarter and have improved the consistency of our commercial performance,” said Group CEO Nick Read. “Lower mobile contract churn across our markets and improved customer trends in Italy and Spain are encouraging, however these have not yet translated into our financial results, with a similar revenue trend in Europe to Q2.

“We enjoyed good growth across our emerging markets with the exception of South Africa, which was impacted by our pricing transformation initiatives and a challenging macroeconomic environment. Overall, this performance underpins our confidence in our full year guidance.”

Addressing the elephant in the room, the €800 million decline. While suggesting a change in accounting standards is a primary cause might sound flimsy, it certainly will have contributed. IFRS15 dictates a business cannot recognise all revenues up-front; if a contract has been signed, revenue can only be recognised in the financials when it is collected. For example, if your customer has agreed terms to pay at the end of the contract, once conditions have been fully satisfied, this revenue cannot be reported until that point. In other words, Vodafone cannot claim it has the money until customers have actually paid it.

While this is a perfectly reasonable explanation of why revenues might have declined, it is also important to recognise Vodafone is under pressure in numerous markets. The team have claimed success across the European markets, with improving customer and financial trends in Italy, retail growth in Germany and reduced churn in Spain, but year-on-year revenues were down 1.1%. Again, there will be multiple factors contributing to this decline, but it would be foolish to suggest everything is rosy at Vodafone.

A couple of weeks back, RBC Capital Markets released an investment note suggesting Vodafone is not only in a slightly precarious position because of competition pressures (in Europe, Africa and India), but upcoming auctions as well. Depending on how aggressively spectrum prices continue to inflate, Vodafone could fit itself footing a bill between €4.5 billion and €12 billion.

Looking at the performance in the markets, if you ignore the difficult one’s things are going great. European service revenues declined 2% to €7.496 billion (using a consistent accounting standard), with the Spanish, Italian and UK markets all reporting drops. Germany and the ‘other’ European markets reported year-on-year increases of 1.1% and 4.1% respectively. In Italy, the team has faced the uncomfortable entry of the disruptive Iliad, while the impact of handset financing was the cause in the UK. In Spain, the team restructured various offerings to make the brand more competitive. In theory, all of these markets should stabilise over the coming months.

Across Africa, Vodacom revenues grew by 1.5%, though growth was dampened by the South African market. Here, service revenue declined by 0.9% down to the pricing transformation strategy. The aim here was to reduce exposure to out-of-bundle revenues and improve the performance of more generous promotional summer offers. Over the period, South Africa added 86,000 contract customers, primarily from the business unit.

The other tricky market is India, but we’ll have to wait for a while to see the lay of the land there. Vodafone Idea will report its third quarter results in February, though as the integration of these two businesses is a work-in-progress any results will have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Reliance Jio is running the show in India as it stands, but the Vodafone Idea merger will have to be given time to create a competitive offering.

Overall, these are results which we should have expected. Vodafone is reacting to pressure in various markets, but it is not in the most comfortable position. In the vast majority of its markets, Vodafone would be considered more of a challenger than a leader. There are certainly dominant positions in some of the African markets, but it Europe it is fighting for attention.

The business is not nose-diving, but it certainly isn’t thriving. However, there are proactive measures taking place across the world to cultivate success. The fixed broadband offering in the UK should make an effective convergence business, Vodafone Idea could challenge the momentum of Reliance Jio, while more competitive tariffs in markets such as Spain and Italy should put it is a better position moving forward.

Vodafone is making some interesting, and encouraging, decisions but it is starting to fight bloody battles on a lot of fronts.

Ericsson seek Ambani arrest over unpaid RCom bill

Ericsson has filed its second contempt petition against Reliance Communications in the Indian Supreme Court asking for Chairman Anil Ambani to be arrested.

The dispute between Ericsson and Reliance Communications is not a new one, though this certainly steps the conflict up a level. With previous lawsuits focusing on unpaid bills, Ericsson has requested be detained in civil prison and be barred from travel overseas unless he can guarantee the payment of 550 crore rupees (roughly $79 million) owed for various products and services.

According to The Economic Times, Ambani has previously given guarantees in court that the debt would be repaid to the Swedish vendor, though since the December 15 deadline is firmly in the past Ericsson executives have gotten twitchy. The last filing asks Ambani be detained until there are concrete guarantees the bill will be paid.

Having missed the original payment in September, Ambani and Reliance Communications were given until December 15 to find the cash, though this has proved more difficult than expected. Ambani is in a bit of a stalemate at the moment, as while he will not want to be arrested, payment somewhat relies on the sale of licenced spectrum assets to Reliance Jio, a transaction which is being held up by the Department of Telecommunications.

This deal is currently in limbo, as while the National Company Appellate Law Tribunal has given the green light for the sale (and told the Department of Telecommunications to clear it), the hold-up is concerning cash. The Department is standing its ground, stating it is not possible to clear the deal unless there was clarity on payment of dues and associated charges. Reliance Jio CEO Mukesh Ambani has stated the company would not be prepared to take any liable for dues owed by Reliance Communications.

With all parties refusing to give in the road ahead does not look like a pleasant one. Not only has his telco business suffered due to the success of his brother’s disruptive influence on the market, but in refusing to accept liability Mukesh is pushing further misery, and a potential jail sentence, onto Anil.

On the other side of the coin, Mukesh’s Reliance Jio is having a much happier time. The latest figures from TRAI suggest the telco grew its subscriber base by more than 10 million, taking total market share up to 22.46%.

That said, family disputes mean nothing to the Swedes. Ericsson will seemingly push ahead to recover the debt, whatever the cost.

Jio bags another 10 million – how was your October?

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released the subscription data for October and it’s another familiar story as Reliance Jio grows its subscription base again.

Looking at the market on the whole, India now has 1.17 billion wireless subscriptions, having added another 720,000 during October. Amazingly, market penetration is now up to 87%. While growth has been staggering since Reliance Jio shunted the status quo, if the country follows what would be considered the traditional trend (mobile penetration eventually exceeding 100% of population) there are still a couple of hundred million mobile subscription to realise.

Unsurprisingly, Reliance Jio has greedily devoured almost all of the positive growth.

Subscription growth Market share
Reliance Jio 10,500,227 22.46%
BSNL 386,926 9.7%
Reliance (3,831) 0.002%
MTNL (8,068) 0.3%
Tata (925,299) 1.8%
Bharti Airtel (1,864,065) 29.2%
Vodafone Idea (7,361,165) 36.55%

With only BSNL, India’s state-owned telco, heading upwards Reliance Jio has firmly placed itself in the strongest position across the market. Bharti Airtel is in somewhat of a downward spiral and it’s difficult to see how it will get itself out of this position, therefore eyes will be cast towards Vodafone Idea for resistance to the Reliance Jio tsunami which is sweeping India.

Looking at these figures alone paints a relatively dreary picture, though you have to appreciate the complicated process the business is currently undertaking. The merger between Vodafone and Idea, which was caused by the jittery upstart Jio, is going through the rationalisation period right now. This is a very complex time and will define the firm’s ability to tackle the Reliance Jio headache in the months to come.

On the money side, we do not foresee this being a massive issue. Vodafone and Idea are merging two massive networks and will soon enough realise the benefits of scale. The subscriber base is massive, providing security for any future investments, and the sale of various different assets (such as the respective tower businesses) provides a hefty war-chest. Taking these factors into account, money should not be an issue, so we have to wonder whether the right people will be put into the right roles and if the right (and flexible enough) strategy will be put in place.

Vodafone Idea is now clearly the market leader in India, but it will only take a couple more months of Reliance Jio continuing on its current path for this lead to be eroded. The momentum is gathering behind Reliance Jio and new products and services (such as fixed broadband) will only add more as convergence ambitions are realised; the emphasis is certainly on Vodafone Idea to prove this isn’t turning into a one-man market.

TRAI reveals Jio is the only Indian telco in growth

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released its monthly report on the state of play in India, and it’s a pretty gloomy picture for everyone aside from Jio.

Across the country, the message is relatively positive. Wireless subscriptions have grown once again this time by 2.4 million, not as glorious as previous months but growth is still growth, but to add a slight dampener to proceedings, broadband declined, this time by 70,000 subscriptions. Once again we reiterate the fixed broadband segment is one which is bursting with opportunity.

Sustained growth in India, while commendable, is not necessarily an interesting development as we have been saying the same thing for more than 18 months. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is who is capturing the additional subscriptions. Stating Jio has collected the lions share will surprise no-one, but September saw everyone else shrink.

Subscription growth Total market share
Reliance Jio 13.02 million 21.57%
MTNL -9,435 0.3%
Reliance -16,349 0.004%
BSNL -536,407 9.67%
Tata -1.01 million 1.88%
Bharti Airtel -2.36 million 29.38%
Vodafone -2.62 million 18.97%
Idea -4.06 million 18.23%

Reliance Jio has now firmly established itself in second place in the market share rankings, which has been a long-time coming, though it is starting to make genuine in-roads against Bharti Airtel. Each month new figures are released and while Bharti might have been able to maintain its position, recent figures have shown the eroding impact of Jio.

The issue for those who are trying to resist the Jio revolution is what is around the corner. Jio has made no secret of its plan to capitalise on the ridiculously low broadband penetration across the country, and you have to wonder what will happen when a more established network can be developed. The company recently purchased controlling stakes in Den Networks and Hathway Cable, offering it a foot through the door, though expect some big developments over the coming months.

Predicting what will happen is a simple task; Jio will take the same low-cost approach to broadband as it has with mobile, though the potential of a convergence product portfolio could further pile the misery onto competitors. How many customers might be tempted to switch over to Jio’s mobile proposition when a cheap broadband bundle is thrown in as well? This is what will be the most interesting development.

Jio has done an absolutely wonderful job of revolutionising the Indian digital economy, but what can be done on the fixed broadband side of things remains to be seen. Just as the story is starting to become repetitive, Jio is about to start on a new chapter.

Vodafone blames big loss on India and other impairments

UK operator group Vodafone announced a net loss of €7.8 billion for the six months to the end of September, thanks largely to some one-off impairments.

Group revenue was down 5.5% year-on-year, but the company wrote down €3.5 bil on the disposal of Vodafone India and a similar amount for various impairments that also included India as well as Spain and Romania. There was also the time-honoured adjustments for currency and various other bits of accounting arcana that presumably make sense to someone. Here’s the P&L, which registers a slightly higher loss, but what’s a hundred mil between friends?

Vodafone 2018 P&L

“Our performance in the majority of our markets has been good during the first half of the year, and we have taken decisive commercial and operational actions to respond to challenging competitive conditions in Italy and Spain,” said Vodafone Group Chief Exec Nick Read.

“Looking ahead, my new strategic priorities focus on driving greater consistency of commercial execution, accelerating digital transformation, radically simplifying our operating model and generating better returns from our infrastructure assets. Our goal is to deepen customer engagement through a broader offering of products and services and to deliver the best digital customer experience, supported by consistent investment in our leading Gigabit networks.

“As part of our effort to improve returns, we are creating a virtual internal tower company across our European operations, and we are reviewing the best strategic and financial direction for these assets. Our focus on organic growth along with the strategic and financial benefits of the proposed acquisition of Liberty Global’s assets give confidence in the Group’s ability to grow free cash flow, which underpins our dividend.”

The comment about towers seems to imply Read is thinking of selling and leasing back some towers, or something like that. The upshot seems to be that Vodafone is fine for cash (the write-downs were mainly the devaluation of existing assets, so there’s no expenditure involved) and so it’s fine to maintain the current dividend level. This resulted in Vodafone’s share price ending the day around 8% up, so no worries. You can read further analysis of Vodafone’s numbers here.