Is it right for Three to ‘dis’ the UK telecoms market?

It’s always been essential for anyone in the mobile industry to stay on top of breaking news. It’s something I advise every client to do. I know from bitter experience that the rug can be pulled from under your feet by a competitor issuing a bold statement, making a splash with a disruptive launch, or appointing a great hire. However, experience has also taught me that you should also look for what isn’t said as much as what is.

So, as you can imagine I found the Mobile News’ headline Three CEO Robert Finnegan: ‘The UK market is dysfunctional’ pretty thought provoking.

Looking back, it’s not the first time Robert has said something like this. Since taking up the helm he has clearly picked up clues that others haven’t and it made me delve under the bonnet.

If we look at this in purely economic terms, the term ‘market’ means the exchange of goods and services that takes place as a result of buyers and sellers being in contact with one another, either directly or through mediating agents or institutions.

This means a dysfunctional market would be devoid of the processes that allows for an exchange of goods.

Clearly that is not the case. We have a wide and disparate market in telecoms with a significant range of sellers, which encourage competition, another attribute of a healthy self-regulating market.

In fact, for the buyers of telecoms and particularly mobile services, the UK is a very competitive market. OFCOM research shows that the UK is the cheapest when compared to four other markets including France, Spain, Italy and Germany, even though they all have declining costs of ownership.

Over recent years, UK mobile owners have enjoyed a 19% reduction in prices and an average of 146% increase in data use. This has been driven by aggressive consumer pricing and all you can eat bundles, funnily enough spearheaded by Three. (Three customers use about seven times the data of a market average consumer.)

So, what’s dysfunctional about it? Is it this discounting that is the problem?

Certainly, in a saturated market such as the UK, increasing use and decreasing value will drive operators to investigate other sources of revenue. Whether that is bundling in extra premium services such as Netflix, Disney or Spotify, or focussing on higher volume incremental growth such as IoT connections.

I wonder then if for Three the challenge that is really presenting itself is that until very recently it has disproportionately focused on the consumer market making it difficult to secure a foothold in the large and more stable enterprise and business markets.

Though it has to be said that this is changing. Three announced its latest SME tariff offering of 10 business subscriptions for just £20. It’s a move that is going to really shake up pricing in the enterprise market and I can only imagine it will be viewed with a certain amount of disapproval by BT, Vodafone and O2.

There’s no arguing it’s a great deal but I suspect analysts will be asking ‘does Three have the extensive products and services required to really tackle the business market?’.

It’s fair to ask. Three has suffered from disappointing results when it comes to coverage, recently coming last or third on all the metrics from the recent Opensignal report. For business buyers coverage is the number one hygiene factor so it’s a perceived weakness that has to be addressed quickly.

Secondly, even the smallest companies are now looking for flexible, fixed mobile converged products and a trusted all round telecoms and IT partner. Three is just not there yet, though there is most definitely potential to look at some of the recent hires.

There’s also a bit more colour to add to the picture. Mr Finnegan hasn’t shied away from talking about consolidation and for Three that can mean only a few things: 1. a merger to gain economies of scale, and Three has some impressive spectrum assets to make it more appealing to a largely complimentary customer base for a buyer like Vodafone , or 2. an acquisition or merger with an organisation that can accelerate Three’s access to fixed and converged assets and give it increased credibility in the business markets through a broader more appealing offer, especially for more cautious business buyers. You can read more about our thoughts on this here.

It has to be noted that this would in all likelihood diminish competition in the market sense. But it would set up Three to be a full suite competitive challenger brand for all the networks.

And why not? We would do well to recall that Three merged with O2 in Ireland and was able to make that leap from fourth player consumer brand to number two in the market with a strong enterprise proposition, albeit in a much smaller market.

But whether you agree that the market is ‘dysfunctional’, you dispute the notion entirely, or you’re happy to sit on the fence and look at all competitive disruption from Three and MVNOs as a positive, there’s no doubt that it all makes for exciting headlines. And frankly it shows that as we leave this disaster of a year behind us it won’t be long before we have more exciting headlines to debate.

If this has made you question your strategy for the year ahead, then I’d be happy to walk you through my approach to summing up change and anticipating market moves so you can set out on the right course in 2021.