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European telecoms operators in strong position to ride out recession

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European telecoms operators in strong position to ride out recession according to Arthur D. Little Exane BNP Paribas joint study "reviving the fixed line" predicts increase in incumbents' valuations of up to 27% over the period 2008 15

Key points:

  • The ongoing success of triple-play helps operators to limit fixed line losses, maintain average revenue per user (ARPU) and preserve profitability through market consolidation.
  • Halving the rate of fixed line losses over the 2008-15 period could increase an incumbent operator's valuation by 27%. Some European operators have already shown that this is possible.
  • Fixed European operators will have a €4Bn revenue opportunity by 2015 from content and services related to the ‘TV of the future'. This opportunity could Generate one percentage point of additional compound annual growth of an incumbent's fixed line revenue over the 2008-2015 period.
  • The current economic situation has opened a window of opportunity for telecom operators, being more resilient than internet and systems competitors. The existing infrastructure and commercial assets of telecom operators will also be of great value to potential partners during the downturn.

With the rise of mobile telephony, telecom operators' fixed line revenues seemed doomed to ongoing decline. However, the eighth edition of the annual Exane BNP Paribas-Arthur D. Little joint report on the European telecoms market predicts that the fixed market will stop losing ground thanks to the growing popularity of ‘triple-play' services, which offer home users phone, broadband access and TV delivered over the internet.

It also identifies that triple-play will help operators to resist competition from Pay-TV providers (cable and satellite) and combat the substitution of fixed lines by mobile broadband.

The study, conducted in 17 European countries with more than 80 telecoms stakeholders, shows that developing and offering services around the ‘TV of the future' - which includes features such as in-built ‘catch-up'/PVR (personal video recorder) and EPG (electronic program guide) facilities, plus integrated online interactivity - is the best weapon available for incumbents to defend their fixed line business. Market consolidation around triple-play services will also further enhance operators' profitability.

In addition, telecom operators are in a strong position to take advantage of their existing technical and commercial assets if they choose the right partners, engage in a balanced content strategy, and align with internet consumption patterns.

"Telecom operators can lead the development of the television of the future," states Jean-Luc Cyrot, co-writer of the report, Arthur D. Little Paris. "But they can't solely rely on their historical assets; a strategy of innovative targeted content and services and carefully-built partnerships will be key to entering this new era of their development."

The triple-play success story

In Europe, in spite of the strong growth of fixed broadband, operators' fixed line revenues have declined by 2 to 3% on average per year due to a decrease in the number of fixed line users (-5.7% per year since 2005).

Two main factors have led to this decrease:

  • The substitution of fixed telephony for mobile telephony in, on average, 20% of European households
  • The incumbent's market share having been reduced by cable operators and competitors that rely on unbundling.

However, the report shows that triple-play has altered this trend. Users are increasingly willing to keep their fixed line phone in order to also enjoy the benefits of broadband and IPTV. For instance, incumbents in countries such as Portugal, Sweden and Austria have reduced fixed line losses in this way.

Triple-play has also led to a consolidation of the market - for example, in France, the acquisition of Cegetel, AOL and Club Internet by Neuf Telecom (now SFR), Tele2 by SFR and Alice by Iliad resulted in a recovery of the average revenue per user (ARPU), a stabilization of operators' market share, and an improvement of their profitability.

"Fixed line loss rate should slow down over the next few years, leading to more optimistic valuations of the sector. For instance, an incumbent that halves its rate of line losses can increase its valuation by 27%," highlights Antoine Pradayrol, Financial Analyst in charge of the telecom operators team at Exane BNP Paribas.

First choice for content: Pay TV and ‘light premium'

By 2015, the report predicts that European incumbents' revenue derived from Pay-TV, video on demand and advertising could reach around €4Bn, which represents 7% of their current revenues (€2.7 per month per fixed line). This increases operators' fixed line revenue by an additional 1% on average per year over the 2008-2015 period, which partly offsets the current 2-3% yearly drawback.

Pay-TV accounts for two thirds of this growth opportunity, as incumbents can seize between 10-30% of Pay-TV subscribers depending on the country. However, the rapidly growing but crowded VoD (video on demand) and advertising markets represent a smaller share of this opportunity.

However, investing in exclusive or high premium content (cinema, football etc) would be, according to the report, a very risky strategy, as the customer base alone cannot amortize this extremely costly content. The authors of the report also state that a strategy combining high premium content and broadband access has no future, specifically because of new regulations forbidding content exclusivity, for example in France, UK and the Netherlands.

Rather, they believe that the winning solution is a "light premium" strategy that packages valuable content (local content, targeted content eg. for kids, sports other than football etc) and develops interactive services around it. This approach, which requires fewer investments, is both differentiating and ARPU generating.

How can telecom operators win?

Challenged in traditional areas of strength (quality of service, infrastructure, good quality content) by companies from the internet and systems worlds, "Telecom operators have to create partnerships to develop innovative services around content, mirroring what is being done in the USA by cable operators such as Comcast and Pay-TV providers such as DishTV," notes Franck Herbaux, Media Director, Arthur D. Little Paris.

By partnering with various players from the telecom-media-technology ecosystem, operators can bring together all the assets necessary to lead the development of the TV of the future - for instance, offering user-friendly, innovative and attractive services such as ‘catch-up TV' and interactive electronic program guides; enhancing the ease of use of the video service catalogue; and by deploying platforms and dedicated sales teams to develop targeted and local advertising.

These partnerships can take place with internet players, software editors or hardware manufacturers (eg. TV or gaming console), and benefit from these experts' competencies in R&D and user friendliness. Such a proactive approach will also allow operators to deflect the threat of access commoditization.

Thanks to recurring revenues and leeway in terms of cost and investment management, telecom operators will be less affected by the economic downturn than other sectors, and so present unquestionable advantages for these ‘expert partners': they provide network access, control of triple-play equipment in the home, and above all, a privileged relationship with the user through customer service and billing arrangements.

"Paradoxically, the current financial crisis gives operators the time to organize and fine-tune their offering, as it will slow down the development plans of both internet leaders and system providers," believes Didier Lévy, Telecom Director, Arthur D. Little Paris.

Local disparities

The 2009 Arthur D. Little - Exane BNP Paribas report notes that European households' triple-play expenditure only costs an average of €50 per month compared to €70 per month in the USA. As such, incumbents in countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands should observe a growth in their fixed line revenues.

"However, the situation is more complex in countries such as the UK and Germany, as telecom operators are threatened in these territories by cable as well as satellite operators such as BSkyB," concludes Antoine Pradayrol.

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