Business Analysis

Big news revealed for Australia's telco industry

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(Screenshot via YouTube)

It's been a busy and interesting couple of weeks for the Australian telecoms industry, with all major players presenting results and updates about their businesses.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

Looking over a 30-year period of competition in the telecoms industry, the big picture remains largely the same. Telstra continues to be the dominant player (over 60% market share), followed by Optus and TPG/Vodafone with approximately 19% and 15%. All other players combined account for around 5% of the total market.

Interestingly, Aussie Broadband is currently one of the best-performing telcos. It offered to buy its competitor, Superloop, but that offer was rejected. Only a few days later, Superloop reported that Aussie Broadband had bought 98 million shares in the company, good for 19.9% voting rights.

Yet, again a few days later, Superloop announced it had pinched Aussie Broadband’s largest wholesale customer, Origin Broadband. It became clear that there were some legal issues with Aussie Broadband’s acquisition of Superloop shares and Superloop requested Aussie Broadband to reduce its shareholding in the company. It is clear the war is on between these two competitors, so watch this space for more interesting developments.

Optus was also in the news again. There are persistent reports that the company is for sale, however, a rumoured bid of $16 billion was rejected by its owners, Singtel. While there obviously have been a range of problems at the company, I don’t think that would be the major reason for a potential sale.

As I discussed in an article in the Australian Financial Review, I see two reasons. One is that the business culture between Optus and Singtel is rather different, so making it an independent company makes sense. The other reason, as I will mention below, is that the telecoms market has become a utilities market, with very little, if any, value-added growth. More on that below.

Growth in the industry is mainly driven by the mobile market, fueled by migrants coming into the country and an increasing use of mobile phones among the general population. Despite a dip in mobile sales after the collapse of its network last September, Optus has largely recovered, indicating customer resilience and similarity to trends in the banking market, where people know it doesn’t make a lot of difference which company you go with.

Smaller companies are also seeing growth through acquisition. Aussie Broadband's acquisition of IP voice company Symbio and bid for telco Superloop exemplify this trend. However, despite growth, Superloop remains loss-making. Additionally, Superloop had previously purchased telcos VostroNet and MyRepublic in order to grow.

Mergers and acquisitions are also driven by the fact that telecommunications has become a utility. Overall revenue growth in the industry remains low, growing by only 1% or 2% per annum, with some years experiencing no growth or slight dips.

Profitability is maintained through cost-cutting measures enabled by new technologies. Each new mobile technology iteration (2G, 3G, 4G, 5G) brings approximately 30% more network efficiency, with cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) further reducing costs.

However, the main financial benefits of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) developments and innovations accrue to Big Tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Alibaba and Tencent, which have seen exponential profit growth over the past two decades.

These companies wield significant economic and political power in a technology-dependent society. The top five account for over a third of the global ICT market valued at over US$5 trillion (AU$7.7 trillion).

Comparatively, local companies like Telstra (and other telcos worldwide, for that matter) pale in significance.

Interestingly, back in Australia, across the industry, we see that the telcos' business customers are spending less.

This is a bit of a puzzle as the need for investments in cybersecurity, privacy protection and AI is very significant. I don’t have a straightforward reason for this — are business users perhaps spending less with the telcos and more with the Big Techs and others? It looks like Telstra’s acquisition last year of cloud computing company Versent has not yet delivered the outcomes the company had hoped for.

Overall, while there are minor dynamics within the industry, the telecoms market's overall picture remains largely unchanged. Limited overall growth, ongoing cost-cutting and little change in market share balance define the landscape.

Real innovation and growth within the broader ICT market occur elsewhere, with companies leveraging telecoms and IT as utility inputs to build new businesses, revenue models and innovative services.

However, critical infrastructure provided by telcos remains essential for emerging technologies like mixed reality (MR), AI and quantum computing. While telcos will continue to provide and extend these (fibre) networks, the financial impact of these investments on the overall telco business remains moderate.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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