Can mobile content plays help telcos return to growth?

As mobile markets become increasingly competitive, telcos are looking at mobile content plays as a way to differentiate their offerings. The mobile content proposition is finally coming into its own, as the spread of 4G networks means high bandwidth demand uses such as video streaming are becoming a reality.

But mobile operators have traditionally offered very little in the way of content. So how should they approach a content play, and more importantly how can they use content to grow mobile ARPU to replace dwindling revenues as voice and SMS declines?

Mobile content plays are currently perhaps more of a ‘holding’ strategy, offering telcos the opportunity to cement customer loyalty and cut churn. However, it is a low-cost option for telcos seeking a low-risk differentiator in mature markets.

Differentiation in a mature market – the UK

Competition is strong in the UK mobile market, with four major players and a wide range of MVNOs, meaning some level of differentiation is essential. Former market leader Vodafone has fallen to a distant third place behind key rival Telefónica’s O2, and EE, the result of the merger of Orange and T-Mobile’s UK units. EE has based its marketing drive on its network coverage and reliability, as it holds a disproportionately large share of the UK’s mobile spectrum following the merger of the two legacy networks.

The desire to consolidate is now growing in the market, beginning with the formation of EE, which was subsequently acquired by fixed-line giant BT, creating a powerful new player in the multiplay sector.

Vodafone UK’s third-party content play

Vodafone in the UK has recently developed a third-party services strategy, offering free subscriptions to Now TV, Spotify, or Sky Sports Mobile App on contracts with over 10 GB data allowances.

Vodafone’s data volumes have seen strong growth in the past few years, reflecting a Europe-wide trend as smartphone penetration climbs and data becomes cheaper. This has been key in stabilising and even stimulating growth in Vodafone’s UK mobile ARPU in the past few years:

Vodafone UK data use and total mobile ARPU, 2011-2016

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Source: Vodafone

However, there is serious doubt as to whether this stability is sustainable, as prices fall and competition continues to increase. Total monthly mobile ARPU in the UK is in decline, falling 1.9% per year on average between 2012 and 2015.

Content plays can stabilise market share, but the growth argument is weak

As prices in the UK stay low and ARPU shows little sign of sustained growth, there remains some serious doubt in the longer-term effectiveness of Vodafone’s content strategy. The telco’s third-party play will attract a small number of new customers and may cut churn, but will not necessarily translate data use into ARPU growth – particularly as the revenue stream is split with Sky and Spotify.

Vodafone UK has already fallen behind its two key rivals O2 and EE, and the OTT strategy is not a strong enough differentiator to allow Vodafone to achieve the growth it needs to seriously challenge the market leaders. This, coupled with the disruptive influence of 3 UK and a growing quad-play sector, puts Vodafone in a precarious position in a highly competitive market.

Sky chooses not to leverage its exclusive content

UK satellite TV giant Sky has launched its own MVNO offering discounts to its triple-play customers. Sky in the UK has grown to be the second-largest triple-play operator on the back of a strong exclusive sport offering. However, the operator’s recently-launched MVNO rather bafflingly failed to offer customers any of this sport content, choosing instead a “safe” offering of discounts for existing fixed subscribers.

Sky’s strategy copies that of UK cable operator Virgin Media, which has grown a respectable mobile subscriber base of some 3 million. However, the vast majority of these will be quad-play subscribers who take Virgin Media’s fixed voice, broadband and TV offerings. Virgin has been happy to slowly build this mobile subscriber base as way to boost total ARPU, but shows little ambition for disrupting the “big four” players beyond its existing fixed customer base.

Virgin’s decision not to develop a mobile content play makes sense as it owns hardly any sport rights or exclusive video content. However, Sky’s decision to follow this strategy makes less sense. Sky’s brand is already synonymous with exclusive sport content, so it would seem to make sense to base a mobile content play upon this. Sky has yet to release any data on the success of its mobile offering, but we do not expect to see any eye-catching growth.

Virgin owner Liberty Global has signed partnerships with Vodafone elsewhere in Europe, and a tie-up in the UK has been touted (see our previous blog post, Time for Vodafone to revisit a Virgin Media deal?) But any such deal with a rival of Sky would certainly end Vodafone’s Sky Sports offering, without bringing Vodafone anything in the way of content to replace this.

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