Sunrise and CEO Swantee abruptly part ways

Sunrise has entered 2020 with the surprise announcement that Olaf Swantee, previously one of the favourites to take over the top-job at BT, will no-longer be CEO.

The abrupt nature of the announcement is of course not the usual course of action from a shift in management, though Swantee will remain in a support role until the Annual General Meeting in April. CFO André Krause has been promoted to CEO with immediate effect.

Details on the reason for a change in management are non-existent for the moment, though there will be plenty of rumours. Traditionally, telcos announce a CEO will be stepping down in ‘X’ number of months’ time, allowing a transition period through to a named replacement. Stating Swantee has resigned with immediate effect is unusual and suggests there is more to the story.

This is speculation however; there might not be a grand conspiracy theory, this might just be way the Swiss like to do business.

Swantee joined Sunrise in 2016 as CEO, having served as the CEO of EE in the UK for more than five years. His time at EE was a very successful one, taking over as CEO in the months following the formation of the company as a joint-venture between Deutsche Telekom and Orange. Over the course of the five-year period, Swantee oversaw the integration of the two existing businesses, as well as led EE to a leadership position in the UK market.

This success was then taken to Sunrise.

  2018 2019 2020 2021
Mobile subs 2.356 million 2.478 million 2.643 million 2.715 million
Growth 0.29% 5.2% 6.64% 2.72%
Market share 21.8% 23.5% 23.6% 23.8%
Broadband subs 457,000 500,879 461,860 461,660
Growth 8.38% 9.53% -7.79% -0.04%

Figures curtesy of Ovum’s World Information Series

Joining just after the company’s IPO in 2015, Swantee oversaw a transformation in the business, investing in the network while also shifting the brand and company culture. Mobile subscriptions are now on an upward trajectory, broadband is stabilising, and TV is in a healthy position. Sunrise is formulating a challenge to the clear and dominant market leader, Swisscom, and Swantee can leave with his reputation enhanced.

This is perhaps what makes the announcement somewhat of a surprising one; Sunrise are in a healthy position. A new strategy, focused on under-30s, is currently underway, while the business is also gaining traction in the enterprise market. Revenues are heading the right direction, as is share price and dividend payments.

What is worth noting is that there may well have been a bit of friction following the recently aborted acquisition of UPC Switzerland, Liberty Global’s assets in the country. Integrating UPC Switzerland into the Sunrise business would have given a boost to mobile subscriptions, but also a notable injection in the broadband unit; UPC Switzerland’s network currently passes 50% of the homes in the country.

Swantee was the champion of the $6.3 billion acquisition, a move which would have driven through a more complete convergence strategy in the business. However, the move was opposed by the telcos largest shareholder, Freenet, forcing the team to abandon the plans. Perhaps this friction could explain the sudden departure of a successful executive?

Whatever the explanation, Sunrise’s loss is someone else’s gain. Swantee is an experienced executive with a habit of being successful. We suspect that Swantee will not be unemployed for long.

Investors scupper Sunrise expansion plans

Sunrise has cancelled an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) to secure acquisition funds to acquire UPC Switzerland after investors rejected the move.

Announced back in February, Liberty Global proudly proclaimed it had offloaded its Swiss business unit, UPC Switzerland, for $6.3 billion. At the time, the acquisition looked expensive, and it now appears the investors aren’t prepared to foot the bill.

“We regret cancelling the EGM,” said Peter Kurer, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sunrise.

“We have spent a significant amount of time engaging with our shareholders and continue to believe in the compelling strategic and financial rationale of the acquisition.”

To fund the acquisition, Sunrise was attempting to force through a 2.8 billion franc rights issue, though this was opposed by Freenet, Sunrise’s biggest shareholder, as well as several other investors. With the opposition from such weighty investors, the writing was clearly on the wall for the Sunrise management team.

While the deal had already received regulatory approval, the usual stumbling block for consolidation in smaller markets, all the opposition arguments come back to the price of the acquisition.

For Sunrise, this was supposed to be a deal which would allow it to compete on a more level footing with market leader Swisscom. With UPC Switzerland introduced to the mix, Sunrise would have inherited mobile subscribers to boost market share, but also a fixed business unit which passes more than 50% of homes across Switzerland.

Theoretically, the inclusion of such assets would have enabled the business to create an attractive convergence model to challenge the leadership position of Swisscom, but it was too expensive.

Just to put things into perspective, the current market capitalisation of Sunrise is roughly $3.57 billion, less than half of the value of the acquisition. This is not necessarily unusual, though when you look at what is being acquired the numbers start to look a bit suspect.

UPC Switzerland has passed just over 2.35 million homes with its fixed network, roughly 50% of the country’s total households. It has 1.07 million broadband subscribers, and 1.04 million video customers, 599,400 of which are premium. The mobile business currently has 173,400 subscribers.

In the three-months ending June 30, revenues at UPC Switzerland stood at $315 million, a year-on-year decrease of 5.2%. The revenue dip was attributed to poor performance in the fixed business unit, though this might be down to decreased marketing activity as management team cast its eye towards the Sunrise transaction; it isn’t necessarily a dip to read into too much.

Investors clearly do not believe these numbers justify a cheque worth $6.3 billion. Just to put it into context, BT acquired EE for £12.5 billion in 2016 and inherited 30 million mobile subscribers at a very similar ARPU.

For Liberty Global, this would seem to be back to the drawing board. The team is attempting to reduce exposure in Europe, refocusing attention on South America, and this will be a disappointing outcome.

Huawei and Sunrise claim 3.67 Gbps from one 5G cell to multiple phones

Swiss operator Sunrise is happy to work with Huawei on 5G and their collaboration is yielding some impressive download speeds.

Not only do they claim to have hit a 3.67 Gbps top speed on a 5G downlink, they say they managed it to ‘multiple’ smartphones from one 5G cell. Sunrise was one of the first European operators to go live with 5G and that fact, together with announcements like these, ad weight to the fear that countries which ban Huawei from their 5G networks may lag behind those who don’t.

Having said that this was just a test, rather than a live network. It was conducted over 100 MHz of C-Band spectrum on Sunrise’s commercial network, using Huawei 5G gear. Huawei took the opportunity to plug its MU-MIMO technology, which is says ‘substantially increases 5G capacity without additional requirement of spectrum and power resource.’

Switzerland has long been a geopolitically neutral country and seems to feel free to go easier on Huawei than many other western countries have. Perhaps as a consequence Huawei will be hosting its latest 5G client event in Switzerland. Announcement like this, as well as general statements of 5G prowess, could also be designed to put pressure on other European countries by showing them what they will be missing out on if they block Huawei.

Sunrise claiming 80% (no joke) 5G population coverage already

It might be a small country, and its citizens might be concentrated in the cities, but Switzerland is driving forward with 5G like few other countries around the world.

Switzerland is not the biggest of markets, but it is demonstrating how competition can drive network deployment forward. Alongside market leader Swisscom suggesting it will have 90% population coverage by the end of 2019 for 5G, Sunrise is claiming it has already hit the 80% milestone.

With 262 cities and towns already covered in the 5G blanket, the Swiss consumers are getting treated to a connectivity euphoria few others can claim to match.

“At the start of April, we launched our 5G network for selected customers,” said Olaf Swantee, CEO of Sunrise.

“This makes us the first 5G provider in Switzerland and Europe. Since then, we have successfully extended our lead. The Sunrise 5G network is the biggest in the country and sets a benchmark in terms of coverage quality.

“We do not differentiate between ‘fast’ and ‘wide’, between fast and slow 5G. Private and business customers want good and fast 5G coverage. That’s why we will also be offering 5G coverage in all Sunrise Shops by the end of the year. In addition to this, we will be launching a dedicated solution for companies, allowing them to benefit from 5G as soon as possible to aid their digitization.”

The first phase of this 5G push is upgrading existing cell sites. This is the simplest aspect of the strategy, though with Huawei’s ‘LampSite’ solution the Sunrise team is addressing the indoor coverage dilemma. As the focus on indoor coverage moves forward, the team is quickly turning its attention to driving ROI through enterprise solutions.

So, what is different in Switzerland? How have the telcos driven forward so quickly into the 5G era?

Firstly, you must take into account the size of the country. At 41,284 km2, Switzerland is ranked 132nd worldwide. It is not massive. And with a population of roughly 8.5 million, it is listed at 99th globally.

Secondly, ARPU is notably higher in Switzerland. During the last quarter, ARPU for post-paid customers was £32.01 for Sunrise. This compares to £20.7 at EE in the UK or £15.33 in France with Orange. Not only does this offer more free cash to drive network investments, it provides more security and confidence when judging ROI.

Thirdly, competition is critically important here. With Swisscom being aggressive with its own rollout, Sunrise has to keep pace. And the faster Sunrise moves, it drags Swisscom forward as well. It is competition at its finest, a virtuous cycle.

Finally, the presence of Olaf Swantee should not be underestimated. As Ovum’s Paul Lambert points out, Swantee is aware to the power of 5G, and having led EE’s successful 4G deployment, the drive and experience to move into the next generation is right at the top of the organization.

Sunrise is not particularly in the same league as Swisscom for the moment, though an aggressive push towards 5G could bridge the gap (6.3 million subscribers at Swisscom, versus 2.4 million at Sunrise). This appears to be the strategy employed by Sunrise according to Lambert; scaled 5G coverage offers a differentiator for the telco and an opportunity to capture higher paying customers.

What is worth noting is population coverage is very different to geographical coverage. Switzerland is a highly urbanised country, roughly 73% live in urban environments, easing the demands on network deployment. When you look at the rural landscapes in Switzerland however, the challenges start to mount up very quickly.

This is a common trait in the majority of the markets where 5G has gotten off to a flying start. South Korea is another example of a market moving very quickly towards the 5G era, and once again, it is a highly-urbanised country. The UK is a third which has the advantage of a relatively small land mass, combined with a concentrated population.

Although these are factors which will simplify the network deployment equation, that should not take away from the progress being made across the Swiss telco industry. In the absence of coverage obligations, good old competition and ambition is driving the agenda.

Sunrise plugs FWA in Swiss 5G launch

Swiss telco Sunrise has jumped on the 5G bandwagon with the launch of a Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) offering aiming to bridge the digital divide.

Like the UK, Switzerland is one of the more sluggish European nations when it comes to fibre penetration. According to the latest statistics from the Fibre to the Home Council, Switzerland currently has FTTH penetration rate of 7.8% across the country, potentially creating a digital divide. This offering from Sunrise is using such a chasm to promote its FWA offering.

“In the digital age, residential and business customers alike need fast Internet with speeds of up to 1 Gbps,” said Olaf Swantee, CEO of Sunrise. “But in many places, customers are waiting in vain due to a lack of fiber optic connections.

“With 5G for People we are filling this gap, e.g. in Unterkulm (AG), where the first Sunrise 5G pioneer switched on his Sunrise Internet Box 5G and can now use ‘fibre through the air’, which is ten times faster than fixed networks. 5G for People is closing the digital divide in Switzerland and making Switzerland Europe’s pioneer in digital infrastructures.”

The initial launch will focus on 150 cities, towns and villages across the country, with each location aiming for between 80% and 98% population coverage, the aim will be to provide an alternative to fixed broadband services, some of which will be considered sub-standards by the demanding consumer of today.

Interestingly enough, the claims themselves demonstrate the difference in attitude between advertising authorities in the UK and Switzerland.

Using a statement such as ‘fibre through the air’ and comparing the 5G service to copper fixed networks not fibre, might irk some advertising authorities. Although it is not a direct lie, it is not telling the entire truth of the situation. Some might suggest this is misleading the customer through omission of information. We suspect the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK would have an issue with some of these claims.

Sunrise is on the charge through the Swiss alps, with its latest acquisition of Liberty Global’s assets adding momentum. First to market does not necessarily mean much in the long-run, but it is good ammunition to add to the armoury.

Liberty Global offloads Swiss business for $6.3 billion

Liberty Global has continued its great withdraw from the European markets with another sale, this time convincing Sunrise its 1 million Swiss customers are worth $6.3 billion.

Announcing the deal alongside its financial results, it does look to be a good deal for Liberty Global. This is a business which has been going through somewhat of a restructure, attempting to find profit in a challenging industry by refocusing resources, though it now appears the years of aggressive acquisitions and expansion have not paid off.

“The past fourteen months have been transformational for Liberty Global,” said CEO Mike Fries. “After two decades of buying, building and growing world-class cable operations in Europe, we have announced or completed transactions in six of our twelve markets at premium valuations.”

While $6.3 billion certainly pales in comparison to some of the mega-acquisitions we’ve seen in recent years, it might be worth putting a bit of context around this transaction.

UPC Switzerland has passed just over 2.3 million homes across the country, this is more than 50% of Swiss homes, currently commanding a subscriber base of 1.1 million. The video offering currently has a subscriber base of just over 1 million subscribers (645,000 of which are premium) and mobile subscriptions total 146,000.

Whether these figures justify the $6.3 billion which Sunrise is handing over we’ll let you decide, though just as a point of comparison BT bought EE, and its 30 million mobile subscribers, for £12.5 billion in 2014.

For Sunrise, such an acquisition will add buoyancy to already positive momentum. Over the last three months, Sunrise realised 42,300 postpaid net adds, UPC Switzerland was 8,500 by comparison, while Internet and TV subscribers rose by 8.3% and 14.1% year-on-year respectively.