Still with added video!
Virgin Media has made the decision to remove itself from the high street, permanently closing its 53 retail stores which have been shut during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
Trends have been shifting away from in-store purchases for years, and it appears the pendulum has swung far enough for Virgin Media. None of its 53 retail locations will be reopened following the period of lockdown, with the 341 employees all being offered alternative roles in the business.
“We are focused on delivering the service customers want, in the ways they want it and at a time and a place that suits them,” said Rob Orr, Executive Director for Sales at Virgin Media.
“By creating new jobs in our most popular care and sales channels, we will be better able to provide our customers with the top service and support they rightly expect while retaining our talented workforce.”
Virgin Media has said at least 300 new customer service roles would be created to compensate for lost in-store roles, the majority of which will be work-from-home roles. The majority of sales already take place over the phone or via other digital channels.
Virgin Media is the first company to make such an announcement, but we suspect there will be others. We are not necessarily limiting our assumption to the telecoms and technology industries, but this lockdown has shown that operations can continue with physical shops or offices, therefore digital transformation programmes might be encouraged.
Looking specifically at the telco space, Vodafone is currently working on a phased reopening plan for post-lockdown, and although it cannot guarantee it will be able to reopen every location, that is the plan. BT will also implement a phased reopening strategy, opening as many locations as Government guidance will allow for.
At the time of writing, O2 and Three had not responded to emails from Telecoms.com.
There might of course be accountants and strategists who would want to close down physical sales channels, digital is much more profitable after all, but this is unlikely to be the case for mobile network operators.
As many customers would be interested in seeing and holding a smartphone before signing a £1000 cheque, a retail presence would be desirable. Closing down these shops might encourage customers to look at devices elsewhere, which might mean losing a postpaid customer. It is a delicate balance, but perhaps a necessary cost, at least for the moment.
Virgin Media is in a different position; how many people want to inspect a router prior to buying a broadband package. It might sound like a negative for the business, but realistically it probably is an unnecessary expense. COVID-19 was probably a contributor to the decision to permanently closing the high street present, but we suspect executives have been discussing this for some time.
Still with added video!
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?
“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)|
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|
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|
Virgin Media Business has signed a deal with Three UK to provide dark fibre backhaul for a bunch of its 5G cell sites.
The deal covers over 3,000 existing and future cell sites around the UK, presumably any that Virgin has fibre to. On top of that Virgin has committed to build new fibre connections to a bunch of urban hotspot locations. This represents a good win for Virgin, building on the backhaul work it got from Vodafone as part of the MVNO deal the two of them signed back in November.
“We’re building the high capacity fibre backbone that will link mobile phone masts and cell sites across the country and power the UK’s 5G future,” said Peter Kelly, MD of Virgin Media Business. “With a powerful network and skilled engineers already in place, our infrastructure will help mobile operators to roll out their 5G network at scale. Virgin Media Business is fast becoming the backhaul bastion for 5G rollout.”
Virgin says that even before this deal it accounted for the backhaul and aggregation of around 40% of the UK’s voice and mobile data traffic. Momentum seems to be in its favour and it could end up grabbing a bigger chunk of the 5G business. One reason for this is presumably the desire on the part of other MNOs not to give business to their direct competitor BT in they can possibly avoid it.
According to the FT, Virgin is also chatting to O2 UK about a similar deal, which would give it the full non-BT set. However, the two are also mulling a merger, which would make turn Virgin into a direct competitor of Vodafone and Three too. Existing backhaul deals would presumably be honoured, but if that merger goes ahead smaller providers such as CityFibre may benefit.
In other Three UK news, its CEO Robert Finnegan has published an update on how the company is dealing with the current unique circumstances. Most of it is the standard corporate stuff about how caring and conscientious the company is, but there are some interesting data points concerning the changes in network traffic after the country was locked down in late March.
- Calls – increase of 8% to 2.5 billion in March.
- Average call duration increased by 21% to almost 4 mins.
- Data usage up 12% despite main video providers reducing the quality of their streaming
- Use of Zoom up 1325% and Facetime up 100%.
- Calls to prayer lines doubled in the first two weeks of lockdown
Finnegan also mentioned that Three has had over 30 attacks on its mast sites, which seems consistent with what other MNOs are reporting. “There is absolutely no link between 5G and Coronavirus,” he said. “The 5G rollout by all UK MNOs complies with all global standards on health and safety which have been developed since the early 1990s.” That should do it.
Two years ago, O2 CEO Mark Evans said he was not convinced by the idea of convergence, but as merger talks between O2 and Virgin Media swell, the telco has entered into moonwalking mode.
The negotiations between O2 parent company Telefónica and Virgin Media owner Liberty Global, which have been confirmed by Telefónica’s group corporate communications team, would being together two of the UK’s connectivity heavyweights, significantly shifting competition dynamics in the telecoms market.
“A deal between O2 and Virgin Media has much logic,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Notably, it would offer each side crucial assets it severely lacks: a mobile network for Virgin and a fixed-line arm for O2. Should it come to fruition, it would transform the UK telecoms industry and a create a giant converged provider to rival BT.”
As Mann highlights above, the merger of the two parties would certainly create a converged telco capable of challenging the market dominance of BT. For one reason or another, the convergence trend was passing these telcos by, but uniting powers is a very interesting move.
At Virgin Media, this is a team which attempted to make waves with bundled service offering, but never really cracked the equation. The TV element was always a bit weak, while not owning its own mobile network was always going to put it a step behind the main players.
|Current subscriber numbers for O2 and Virgin Media|
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
At O2, the executive team always made a point that the telco was a mobile connectivity business and it would not get distracted by side-missions into content or broadband. This stubborn position has of course been watered down over the last year or two, and now it appears Telefónica is embracing the convergence trend without prejudice.
To date these are companies who have been successful focusing on core competencies, but the world is of course changing, with the risks to pureplay telcos very noticeable.
“Neither company is immune to the driving need for a converged network and services,” said Paolo Pescatore of PPF Foresight.
“This is the next battle ground in the UK. Virgin Media has been one of the pioneers in this area but has been let down without a mobile network, late to market in 4G and a struggling TV business. Whereas O2’s sole focus on mobile and championing consumers will run out of steam at some point.”
What is of course worth noting is that this is a deal which is far from complete. Firstly, the duo would have to agree on a price, secondly, existing partnerships would have to be unwound, one of the brands would have to be folded into the other and finally, regulatory approval would have to be sought.
Both of these UK telcos are successful components of international corporations. Group level executives would want to ensure there the business benefits suitably financially, while also maintain a high enough stake in the merged business moving forward. This could prove to be a prickly point during the negotiations.
In terms of the existing partnerships, Virgin Media signed a very prominent MVNO agreement with Vodafone in recent months, while O2 offers MVNO services to Sky. These deals would likely have to be examined during the negotiation periods to ensure a merged party does not offer to much assistance to rivals.
Although O2 and Virgin Media are successful brands in their own right, one would have to give way to the other. BT and EE co-exist in the same group function, but the full benefits of convergence cannot be realised with two distinct brands. The teams would have to figure out which brand survives, and which one dies.
Finally, regulation. This has been an irritation for UK telcos in recent years as European authorities seem very dismissive of consolidation demands from the industry. As service overlap between O2 and Virgin Media is minimal, we suspect this will not be too much of an issue, though the likes of BT, Vodafone, Sky and Three will likely kick up a stink as the merged entity is a threatening prospect.
Should all the pieces fall into place, this is a move which could benefit both parties considerably. O2 would gain more access to fibre assets, Virgin Media to mobile infrastructure and both would be able to offer a broader portfolio of services.
Convergence is a business model which offers considerable gains in terms of customer loyalty, operational efficiencies, net promoter score, average revenue per user and momentum in diversification ventures. However, the barriers to entry are high, time consuming and very expensive. This is far from a finished deal, but it would create a much more competitive force and a potential catalyst for disruption in the UK market.
BT is running ads in Bristol dissing Virgin Media’s fibre offerings and Virgin is having none of it.
The BT poster campaign says ‘Bristol. Don’t settle for Virgin’, inferring its own fibre broadband offerings are superior (or at least more reliable). Pretty tame stuff, we thought, but it seems to have seriously triggered Virgin, which immediately mobilized its west-country operation to plan a counterattack.
It took the form of a large van driving around Bristol, with the following slogan emblazoned on the side: ‘B******T Our fastest average speed in Bristol is 516Mbps. That’s loads faster than BT. Enough said.’ Pretty edgy stuff, we think you’ll agree. The smallprint says BT can only manage a pedestrian 300 Mbps in Bristol. The asterisked-out initial statement seems to be deliberately ambiguous, inferring ‘bullshit’ but also the hashtag #bornfast. See what they did there?
“BT’s broadband bunkum just couldn’t go unchecked,” said Cilesta Van Doorn, Brand and Marketing Director at Virgin Media. “Residents of Bristol won’t be fooled by BT’s babble and we look forward to welcoming anyone who wants to experience life in the fast lane with our superior ultrafast speeds. With a reliable future-proof network that is bringing gigabit speeds to Bristol and more of the UK, Virgin Media is, as always, leading the charge – catch us if you can.”
Fighting words from Van Doorn there, who followed through with a press release about the whole unpleasantness, but we would have been more impressed if VM had gone all-in and actually written ‘bullshit’ on the van. Alternatively, if asterisks are mandatory, how about writing something like ‘BT are a bunch of lying b*stards and we’re not standing for any of their f*cking b*llocks anymore.’ That would have been cool, as would any attempt to exploit the cockney rhyming slang potential of Bristol.
Virgin Media has announced it will move its MVNO wholesale agreement from BT Enterprise to Vodafone, as the 5G engines start to rev.
Although the agreement with BT Enterprise does not expire until 2021, Virgin Media has said it will launch 5G services on Vodafone’s network ahead of this time. Virgin Media Business has also signed a wholesale agreement with Vodafone relating to the supply of various network services.
“This agreement with Vodafone will bring a host of fantastic benefits and experiences to our customers, including 5G services in the near future,” said Lutz Schüler, Virgin Media CEO.
“Twenty years ago, Virgin Mobile became the world’s first virtual operator and this new agreement builds on that heritage. It will open up a whole new world of opportunity for Virgin Media as we focus on becoming the most recommended brand for customers and bring our mobile and broadband connectivity closer together in one package for one price.”
While customer bundling has always been a prominent strategy for the Virgin Media business to increase customer loyalty, the mobile side has never genuinely attracted much interest in a UK market where MVNOs have traditionally played second fiddle. Pricing and bundling options have not been revealed as of yet, though with a prominent broadband business sitting alongside a refreshed content proposition, perhaps the Vodafone network might be the missing piece of the puzzle for mobile.
“We are delighted that Virgin has recognised the huge investments we’ve made, and continue to make, in building the UK’s best mobile network and our role in challenging the market with new commercial services,” said Nick Jeffery, Vodafone UK CEO. “As a result, they have chosen us to work with them in the next phase of their development.”
As it stands, Virgin Media currently has 5.6 million broadband subscribers, a 21% market share of the UK’s 26.6 million broadband connections. Project Lightning, Virgin Media’s fibre expansion initiative, will eventually pass 17 million residences, while ARPU for the broadband services has increased 0.5% to £45.39 for H1 2019. Prices are also set to rise by 4.9% on average for the remainder of the year to further grow ARPU.
Alongside the progress being made in broadband, the team has also refreshed its TV proposition. This was a pale imitation of content in bygone years, though partnerships with Sky, BT and Amazon Prime for football content could lead the TV services into the land of relevance.
This is a very healthy position to be in, however the share of mobile is much less attractive when you take into consideration how long the brand has been around. With 3.1 million mobile customers, Virgin Media’s MVNO only commands market share of 3.6%. This is the missing piece of the puzzle.
Mobile certainly presents an opportunity for Virgin Media to drive revenues forward, though the 5G world is becoming increasing congested. Alongside the four MNOs, Sky also plans to launch 5G services and we suspect there will be more in the pipeline. In a market with just over 84 million subscriptions to fight for, there will be a lot of choice.
Being a MVNO is not necessarily a perfect situation, though Virgin Media is in a good position. The convergence trend, bundling together services into a single bill, is a proven strategy to decrease customer churn and increase both ARPU and NPS. It might not have taken hold in the UK just yet, though there is plenty of evidence for the sceptics to mull over on the continent.
Following the initial launch in Southampton, Virgin Media has announced Manchester is the second city in the UK which will be offered ‘gigabit’ speed broadband services.
The overarching plan is to bring gigabit speed broadband services to 15 million homes by the end of 2021, and starting today, 500,000 homes in the Manchester region will be able to sign-up to the eye-watering download speeds.
“Manchester is a major centre for Virgin Media and the place our Project Lightning network expansion first started, so switching on our hyper fast gigabit services will help to once again transform connectivity across the city and surrounding areas,” said Jeff Dodds, Chief Operating Officer at Virgin Media.
“The Government has called for nationwide gigabit connectivity and we’re helping them leap forward to reach this ambition by turning on our next-generation Gig1 broadband across our entire network over the next 24 months – a speed and scale unmatched by anyone else.”
Starting at £62 a month for an 18-month contract, with prices frozen for 24 months, this certainly isn’t a broadband package for everyone. How many people feel they need the 1,104 Mbps peak speed which is being promised is another dubious question, though it won’t be long before services emerge which create the demand. It might sound ridiculous, but when the networks have been created, someone always comes up with a way to use the speed headroom.
While it all sounds very promising, there is a big difference to the speeds down the pipe and what is experienced in the home.
Speaking at Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam, Ramón Garcia of semiconductor firm KDPOF highlighted that the router is the main problem for many consumers. After conducting research, Garcia highlighted that many homes are not set-up to experience gigabit speeds, suggesting not enough work has been done by telcos to spread the connectivity euphoria away from the router.
Although there has been a lot of work done to develop wifi mesh systems to improve connectivity throughout the home, there are circumstances where a wired backbone would have to be introduced to improve coverage. This is something which has largely been ignored by the telcos, as the main concern is to improve speeds down the pipe while little attention has been paid to the router and beyond.
This might be a stumbling block for Virgin Media, though it did introduce ‘intelligent wifi’ earlier this year which aims to improve the allocation of connectivity in the home. The software will not only choose the least congesting channel but will also allocate bandwidth to devices depending on what applications are being run.
With this launch, Virgin Media are offering another upgraded router, the Hub 4, which boasts more antennae than its predecessor. This does not necessarily address the issues of the far away corners of the home, but it is certainly another incremental upgrade to improve customer experience.
Whether the Mancs are able to experience the same speeds promised by Virgin Media remains to be seen, though we remain hopeful as this is further evidence the UK is sorting itself out when it comes to fixed connectivity. For years, the UK has languished in the ‘also ran’ category when it comes to broadband connectivity and fibre-to-the-home deployment, though there is gathering momentum.
It might not be setting the world on fire, but Virgin Media is proving the slow, steady approach to business is certainly worth paying attention to.
On the financial side of the business, total revenues grew marginally by 0.4% to £1.279 billion for the second quarter. Broadband customer acquisitions bolstered the financials, though these gains were mainly offset by customer losses in TV and mobile. This doesn’t seem to be the most attractive of statements, though the management team doesn’t seem to be worried as the convergence mentality becomes more prominent.
“Our disciplined and balanced approach to customer acquisition and capital expenditure has seen a return to growth in our sector-leading cable ARPU and strong free cash flow generation,” said Lutz Schüler, CEO of Virgin Media.
“Underpinning this is the continued success of our network expansion, new initiatives to improve sales and customer service and our fixed-mobile Oomph bundles which have already seen a doubling of customers attaching a mobile SIM to their package with meaningfully higher ARPU.”
An important aspect to always consider when discussing convergence is the incremental nature; this is a strategy which casts an eye to the horizon. Quarter-on-quarter you might not see the benefits, but in a few years’ time, a few will look back and wonder how they got by without such a considered approach to customer management, acquisition and retention.
Looking at the business objectives, there are four strategic pillars; converged customer contracts, increased sales efficiencies, improvement in base management and digital transformation. None of these strategies are a silver-bullet to find the next billion, but this is looking like a business which is in a healthy position, posed for growth in the next era of connectivity.
In the broadband business, Protect Lightning (the fibre buildout programme) now passes 1.8 million premises throughout the UK. Subscriptions increased by 5,000 across the period, taking the total to 14.7 million. Video cable subscriptions are down, though with a new bundle offering launched focused on sport, this could be an interesting area of growth for the business.
Over the next couple of weeks, we strongly suspect there will be an aggressive advertising campaign to glorify the benefits of Virgin Media’s TV subscriptions. Bundling together Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon (separate subscription) into a single aggregated content platform might be attractive to numerous sports fans, and at a cheaper price than competitors, it has the potential to cause disruption.
This has been a pain-point for Virgin Media for the last few years. Speaking from experience, your correspondent can detail the inadequacies of the TV package, though industry analysts are increasingly confident this new approach from Virgin Media is much more comprehensive. The management team are also putting a brave face on the loss of TV subscriptions, suggesting the strategy is to move away from entry-level customers, focusing on higher-end, higher-value targets.
These are two of the convergence prongs at Virgin Media, with mobile being the final. This is another area where subscriptions declined, primarily pre-paid, though as Virgin Media is currently an ‘also-ran’ in the mobile segment there is significant room for growth if the proposition is fairly priced in.
Working with EE/BT, the opportunity is certainly there to create an effective mobile proposition. EE/BT regularly has the highest rated network in terms of overall performance, though perhaps Virgin Media’s ability to offer 5G tariffs will play a notable role here. We’re not too sure what the agreement is between the two parties, though should it be able to offer 5G services over the EE/BT network sooner rather than later, the convergence strategy may well receive a boost.
Looking at the benefits of convergence, many point to higher ARPU, though perhaps the more significant, longer-term advantage is customer retention. Virgin Media experienced 15% customer churn at the end of 12-month contracts, though many accept churn rates decrease for converged customers. Considering the cost of acquiring new customers in a saturated market like the UK, anything which can be done to improve retention is a massive bonus.
In terms of convergence, the number of fixed-mobile converged customers has improved to 19.9%, as the proportion of new customers taking mobile with cable services doubled post launch. We have asked for more details on the number of converged customers as a percentage of the total, churn rates in comparison between the two and differences in ARPU, and at the time of writing Virgin Media is yet to respond.
We suspect the numbers will be positive, though nothing that will stop the world from spinning. That said, that is not a bad thing. Convergence is about incremental gain, the slow and steady approach to business improvement.
Convergence is about setting goals a few years in the future, it’s a gradual gander forward. You might not see the benefits, but looking back, you’ll wonder how you operated without such a considered approach to business. Virgin Media is looking like it is in a healthy position.