Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Valuing Vodafone

Yesterday Vodafone reported that it was no longer talking to Liberty Global about an asset swap and many analysts called it a mistake.  I have always seen it as a foregone conclusion, Liberty Global wants to exit Europe it has very little of interest to Vodafone and the pricing was always out of sync.

Earlier Malone had said that no deal was likely to happen with Vodafone as despite an investor roadshow pitching the "benefits" of such a deal to stockholders he had been unable to convince Executive inside Vodafone that a deal made sense and the price was right.

What has been a surprise to me is the rent a quote brigade who are all happy to say that it was an error on Vodafone's behalf.  Telecoms in Europe is a marginal one when it comes to profitability and more customers does not necessarily mean that the odds are better for success.  Investments are high and prices are falling, this could explain why Liberty wishes to exit before it can no longer pay debts, and competition is intense. Vodafone under Colao has not been about market share at any price rather it is about effective management of assets and seeking to maintain margins. Thus taking on Liberty's properties in Holland and Germany was not going to survive an introductory discussion.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

3UK Launches free VoLTE

Read this today and thought that once again Networks don't understand that Voice is the key product and whilst innovation is welcome, this is not it! To be fair to 3UK they are not the only ones to play games with the Customer EE have a similar VoLTE service that is only available to those taking a new HTC or have an iPhone 5/6.  

The first thing that gets my back up is that what is basically a software product has been launched on a single handset. It is not a marketing product to be used to force a different purchasing decision it's a service that should be capable of launching to ALL existing customers with a Smartphone not because you have bought a Galaxy S5.

Then we have the issue that the Executive put up to promote the launch is the CTO of 3UK rather than a dedicated executive for Voice.  If a mobile network cannot appoint a Board Member to oversea and promote a CORE product then just why should the customer respect it?

Since using a 4G handset I have experienced very poor quality phone calls. The ability to drop calls reminds me of the early days of Orange and One-2-One when in an effort to overcome such a poor experience Orange offered "free calls" if you had to redial as a result of dropped calls. 

For a long time I have spoken in private about the fact that voice revenues have declined in Mobile Networks because very little time is spent reviewing Voice as a product at Board Level.  I have not met a senior executive in Europe who sits on a board and has sole responsibility for Voice for the past ten years. As a result we have Customers not bothering to make phone calls on a mobile because the experience disappoints. 

I had hoped that by now Mobile users could have an active directory service which highlighted if a number in you contacts list was engaged before you called or inactive for a number of hours prior to your call.  Such a service could mean that rather than dialling the user could chose to send a text message.  I also hoped that the audio quality would have been upgraded to a level that allowed noise cancelation enhancing the ability to hear what has been said without asking the other person to speak up.      

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

BT has got NO friends!

Over the last few weeks it seems that the current Ofcom review of BT is unlikely to follow the pattern of "business as usual" when it comes to outcomes.  These could mean that the chickens finally come home to roost at BT.

Over the course of a week BBC Radio4 featured the failures of Broadband Britain to live up to promises on the Today programme.  It was not until 4 negative features that BT CEO Gavin Patterson finally agreed to an interview and that was not face to face rather it was prerecorded and broadcast on a Saturday morning.  You have to ask just what the PR team were doing, was it a failure or arrogance?

This weekend Chris Bryant wrote to The Telegraph calling for the break-up of BT because it had failed to provide the Broadband needed of UK PLC despite £1.8bn of grants to do so.  This is a shadow minister prepared to outline Labour Party policy in the middle of a Leadership election!

These events on there own might lead you to think that BT will be alright, it might find itself facing tighter regulation but it's unlikely that a break-up will be forced on it.  However take a look at the fact that industry rivals that are also calling for a split are also donors to the Conservative Party and you might start to thing that BT could be facing years of legal challenges and disruption.  Given that Ian Livingston's time in Government was shorter than a contract for one of BT's services you have to ask what friends they have?

Monday, August 10, 2015

The decline and fall of HTC

Over the last week a number of people have been speculating on the future of HTC saying that it is at risk of disappearing.  The problem is that having climbed the mountain of volume sales of phones to number three it has failed to ascend to the top and rather has slipped back as a result of poor sales for the flagship HTC One (M9).

The problem for HTC is that the "upgrade" to the M9 was judged by most not to be significant enough from the M8 and so growth stopped.

The creation of the mobile phone mass market was achieved by a few manufacturers who offered a range of handsets.  The manufacturers of my early days in mobile are now consigned to museums rather than still major players, Motorola, Erricson and Nokia.  But then others older than me will say the same about car manufacturers of the early 20th century and we still have cars.

The global dominance of Nokia was achieved not on a single handset but rather on a platform of devices that were conceived thanks to long term analysis and developed not just internally but also using the skills of the IDEO Group.  This meant that both hardware and software evolved dependent on the markets that the handsets were sold in to.

The Android Ecosystem leaves very little room for customisation by manufacturers and contract manufacture means that common components leave devices looking very similar.

The shame is that the early days of HTC saw it make a range of handsets that made use of touch AND keyboard. Why then now are we faced with a single form factor in just two sizes? Perhaps we can expect contract manufacturing will give HTC some space to recover rather than it fail but it is more likely that it will pass into history.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

How Apple Pay highlights ALL that is wrong with the App ecosystems

So last week Apple Pay launched in the UK on a wave of hype, the Usual Suspects were interviewed on now simple it was to use to buy coffee and travel on The Tube and now disruptive it was; using just an iPhone or your iWatch. To watch the reports the mobile phone was finally going to replace your wallet doing away with the need for plastic payment cards and finally mobile payments were going to take off after years of false dawns.

But hang on Apple Pay only works on Apple Hardware and quite a few people I see out in public don't have an iPhone preferring to have an Android device. Also there is an issue with just what banks payment services are available at this moment as not all card issuers are set up on Apple Pay. So far nobody I have seen has spoken about how Apple Pay will allow the user to ditch their wallet as  with this version of the App it allows only one card to be associated with the service at any time.  But hang on the thing it seeks to replace has more than one payment card and so rather than a replacement at present the service is an alternative as most wallets are see have six plus cards in.

The first week of use, judging by my twitter stream seems to be users explaining how those in retail did not know that you can pay by phone or the service failing to work as the EPOS didn't confirm payment and so they are having to revert to traditional contactless cards.

Rivals to Apple are now promoting that they have or will have there own App that allows the user to do just the same and so you can add that to Apple Pay on your phone or remove and replace it.

What we are not told is that the service is not a full replacement for Internet Banking, the lack of interface with Payment Service Providers means that it will not allow you to confirm account balances, review all transactions on your account or make direct payments.  These services should be available and they potentially could be very secure however the Banks and Mobile Networks are at a standoff as to pricing such interactions.  The Banks wish to pay the Mobile Networks 0.0001p per transaction, The Mobile Networks want 5p per transaction because the massive volumes make it necessary to invest in more infrastructure.  Given that the Banks charge retailers over 50p per transaction it does seem that the Banks are attempting to rip of the Networks, but then I would say that because I work for MNOs rather than Banks.

Why should be accept such a limited service in a mobile payment app? I want something that allows me to replace cheque writing at the start of every school term with a simple system that allows me to send money by text.  It's not difficult Africa and Asia have had such services for years now.

Does Apple have a roadmap that means they will upgrade the services as volumes increase and users demand more features or will Apple Pay be a service like visual voicemail a flash in the pan that is quietly killed off?  Apps are not the disruptive innovation a journalist will have you believe they are compromises because infrastructure for different markets does not have the ability to talk to one another and the owners of the different systems demand so form of entry fee.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Which way does Microsoft turn when it comes to Mobile?

Yessterday Microsoft wrote off the full cost of the Nokia purchase confirming that the addition had failed to change its fortunes within the Mobile sector.  I have watched Microsoft continuely fail in the mobile space for over 15 years with either poor software or limited hardware.  So what does Microsoft do now, walk away from the sector or can it be an effective player?

I think that it has one last roll of the dice.  Look at Microsoft as a whole and whilst it does have some exposure in the consumer space it is predominately an Enterprise business.  If it is to be a success then it should embrace the Enterprise market for mobile solutions and buy BlackBerry.  In doing so it would have an operating system capable of interfacing with Exchange Servers and open up a wide range of poosibilities for itself and its partners.  A BlackBerry that is part of Microsoft would be able to move into the Blue Collar sector and stop losing Professional customers thanks to imporoved Channel Partners who could deliver customers in the tens of thousands.

In the early days of Mobile Data Windows CE was used in the majority of handheld terminals used in logistics, field service engineering and government sectors.  As mobile has become more important to businesses Microsoft has lost its focus and whilst some have attempted to eat into the market with the launching of Apps.  These Apps are a compromise given that iOS and Android do not have enough APIs to open up all the functionality needed for Enterprise Mobility.

The rise of Apple and Android has lowered the valuation of BlackBerry and Microsoft has a large cash pile that it can use to fund a purchase.  BlackBerry can be happy with a new owner that is unlikely to closedown it's Canadian offices and make large redundancies rather they will have someone likely to invest and increase the workforce so Regulatory approval will be easier than say selling to a Far East Manufacturer or Software company.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Don't believe the spin BT will not manage EE any better than it's current owner

The Chief Executives if BT and EE have recently been on a charm offensive aimed at getting us to buy into the view that BT buying EE is a good idea for more than the shareholders of Orange and DT.  They have presented interesting scenarios about Network Investments whilst managing to limit details about pricing and product strategy.

Looking from the outside I fear that in becoming a division of BT Retail the mobile tallent will walk away from the business rather than stay and execute on the plans of the Chief Executives.  Nobody is talking about staff retention for EE and if BT fail to do so then they will be serious trouble.  BT's history in managing Mobile assets is not a good one and for the past 15 years they have not had to, which means they have very little understanding of 3 and 4G Networks.  The Civil Service mentality within BT means that very few within EE will feel comfortable but their knowledge is vital is any progress is to be made post acquisition on the development of Radio Access Networks.

The addition of Mobile to the regulatory mix will give Ofcom the chance to balance the advantage that BT has held recently in gaming investigations.  The EE regulatory team will not find the present relationship carried forward and they might find that they are queried more about network coverage and quality. Becoming the largest operator in both Fixed and Mobile Networks means that BT will need to demonstrate that it is meeting access requirements as well as investing in upgrades.  The Consumer may well benefit in the short term from BT taking over EE in that I expect that a significant investment will be made in Subscriber Acquisition budgets in an effort to retain EE customers and switch BT ones to the Network.  Will shareholders be happy with gifts of subsidised smartphones and tablets?  The increased load on BT Wifi hotspots will also be an interesting traffic light on current investment in the BT Broadband network and upgrade cycle.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Is it possible to fix BT?

Ofcom has started another review into how BT effects the UK telecoms market, so 10 years after the first review. At the same time the CMA are looking at it's plans to buy EE.

This regulatory overview gives a chance to review how BT operates in the UK and what could be done to improve things.  Since the Privatisation of British Telecom the market has failed to offer an effective competitor rather it has seen a race to the bottom.  

Consumers in the UK have been very poorly served when it comes to keep up with Continental rivals when it comes to Infrastructure.  Whilst the cable industry did attempt to build out an alternative network it failed to do so with a sustainable business model and so we are faced with the situation that more households are not pasted by Virgin Media than are. The provider of the last resort is thus BT and as such is highly regulated with an obligation to wholesale network access to rivals.

Thirty years ago Britain got its first mobile networks, one of those had access to enough rooftops to build infrastructure needed up until 2000 thanks to it's only property portfolio and captive business accounts.  The other was Vodafone, a small start up based at the end of the Thames Valley with a sleepy parent focused on the defence industry.  Yet because BT focused on doing things that impeded its rival rather than do what was needed they failed so sceptically that they were forced to divest the Mobile business.

When it comes to the Broadband business it has repeated the same mistakes, rather than invest in the Network so that it was the best possible it has played games with rivals seeking to do just enough to avoid sanction.  We thus find ourselves in the UK operating behind the curve when it comes to digital services because of slow speeds and over capacity.

The last review took Ofcom two years to complete and saw the creation of Openreach as an effective remedy. Hindsight has proved that the actions have not worked and BT rivals are now asking for the business to be spun off from it's parent in an effort to improve capital investment. Such a option will not solve the investment lag rather it will make it worse.

I saw recent analysis of the performance of BT shares over the last fifteen years which highlight that the Management had managed to offer a negative return of some 20+% one of the worse performance with the FTSE 100. Thus shareholder seem just as ineffectual as regulators to force the Executives to run the business.    

Monday, March 02, 2015

GSMA Mobile World Congress 2015

So today the Mobile World Congress officially opened in Barcelona and I fear that it's days are numbered as an event because the Circus that is the exhibition is now too big and the Conference of little relevance to the Mobile Network Operators who make up the GSMA. For many MWC15 started on Sunday with a number of handset makers holding Press Events to launch new devices.

The GSMA in an effort to raise funds has grown the exhibition event to a size that it is no longer controllable.  Yet it has failed to attract the likes of Apple to attend either to exhibitor or talk at the conference. Every year the GSMA attempts to set the agenda and fails, it leaves me feeling disappointed and questions just what datapoints they select in an effort to predict the future.  This year they are focusing on the Internet of Things which I have to ask just what does that have to do with Mobile Networks over the next 5 years?

Just before Telecoms World collapsed we saw Internet Firms descend on Switzerland spending $1M+ on stands getting all the attention rather than presentations on the Conference stage.  I fear that we are witnessing the same with MWC.  At the end of this week I am sure that the GSMA will announce ever more visitors attended, more press attended and the whole thing was a success.  I think I will say that the event has become somewhat like a Conservative Party Conference all be it on a large scale. We took a trip to the seaside to walk around a massive soulless space and feel that we are close to the powerful only to discover that we have no influence let alone power to shape the future!  

Thursday, February 05, 2015

So BT have finalised a deal for EE

We woke this morning to the news that BT had agreed terms to acquire EE.  I have to say that if feels that I am in some strange fantasy world rather than one that understands the massive risk such a deal is.

Those that make a living as public analysts have all been very quick to jump on the bandwagon that this is wonderful news.  I feel somewhat differently.

If I were a shareholder in Orange I have to ask just how owning shares in BT is going to fund purchases in France aimed at consolidation?  It is also difficult to see how DT can say it got a fair price for finally exiting the UK mobile market (they bought One-2-One for £8.4bn).

But lets look at just what BT have bought and how they are unlikely to be able to execute an strategy that offers a return on the investment.

BT back in the retail game.

Part of the "prize" for BT is the fact that they will take over the stores of EE and thus have a presence on the High Street through which they can upsell other services.  BT used to have retail stores that they closed because they could not make them work.  I do not think that they have significantly changed so that they can offer a presence where you can talk people into Quad play services. If they can sell Quad play then it will be on the basis of discounting rather than quality.  

What can BT do will all the 4G Spectrum?

In the 4G auctions BT purchased spectrum that it was going to used for fixed mobile services and now has spectrum refarmed and purchase by EE.  The regulator will have demands about forfeiture of some of the Spectrum. Whilst divisions other than BT Retail will have requirements for Mobile Spectrum of its own, can these be met by the new holding?

BT's ability to invest in Fibre

If BT can find the money to buy a Mobile asset then why can't it find the money to better roll out Fibre Broadband, is likely to be the simplistic view of politicians.  Thus demand that BT deals speedily in building out Fibre to the 50% of households not covered by Virgin's footprint will increase.  Alongside the calls for faster upgrades to the Fibre estate will be demands that they wholesale access prices fall.

Talent blackhole when it comes to Mobile

BT does not have the Executive experience required to manage a Mobile Operation and the Management at EE is unlikely to want to work for BT.  This means that once the deal closes they will face a mass exit of know how just at a time that they need to up skill. If they wish to stop that then they will be over paying, if they don't then they will discover just how complex managing the build and maintenance of a Mobile Network is.

Everything just got a lot more expensive for BT

Anyone with something to sell to BT has just seen that they are happy to pay top prices.  So in order to close any significant move they will discover that the price has just risen by 15-20%.  If they can spend £12.5bn for EE they must have the money for ...

BT Executives are in my experience very far from reality.  They might feel that they are offering the consumer an enhanced product range that they should be happy to pay for.  The reality is that for the last fifteen years telecommunications has been a commodity that the user demands at an ever decreasing price.  Look at the UK retail space and you see a blood bath, experienced hands like Tesco, M&S and Topshop are hurting an BT thinks that they can be successful. BT adverts for Broadband services may win awards and get people talking but they do not seem to get people signing up for service.  If you pay out £12.5bn how long can you offer BT Sport free of charge to your Consumers? What will the price be and how many will pay it?

Rather than telling the CEO and Chairman that they have struck an excellent deal if I would a significant shareholder I would be selling off my holding as it is unlikely that I will see an increase in dividends from helping Germany and France exit the UK Mobile market.