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5G is coming: who wins and who loses?

It’s regarded as the future of mobile, but a recent research trip to the US drove home that 5G will be one of the biggest themes of 2019.

Telecommunications companies (‘telcos’) are particularly excited about the implications of 5G for fixed wireless. The offshore companies we spoke to gave useful insights into what we can expect from the big players in our region.

Big speeds, big capacity, big opportunities

Telecommunications giant Verizon plans to use 5G network’s capacity for fixed wireless. When fully operational, the company expects its new 5G network will be 10-20 times faster than with existing 4G technology and carry 10 times more data. It will also be 10-12 times cheaper (on a cost/byte basis) to run.

This speed and cost savings will significantly close the gap between fixed-line and mobile broadband services, and it is likely to result in many subscribers shifting to mobile-only services.

The decline of the fixed line

Verizon’s target is to move 30 million homes in the US (around 25% of its subscriber base) to fixed-wireless services. The company has already stopped investing in fixed-line access, as wireless is set to be more profitable than fixed-network customers. As customers make the switch, Verizon is projecting fixed lines to revert to negative growth within five years.

In Australia, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone (and until recently and now apparently cancelled, TPG Telecom) are building 5G networks.

We believe that Telstra, with around 50% share in both mobile and fixed broadband markets, is well placed to switch some customers from fixed to mobile. Like Verizon, this should be a driver of future earnings, with Telstra’s mobile business earning around 40% EBITDA margin versus a barely profitable NBN business.

Similarly, in New Zealand, Spark New Zealand is targeting approximately 25% of its subscriber base for fixed wireless. As incumbents shift customers onto more-profitable mobile products, competitors such as Optus and Vodafone will follow, with implications for fixed-line operators, such as NBN and Chorus New Zealand.

Cost savings from the cloud

The investments made by telcos into 5G will enable them to shift much of their legacy networks to the cloud, allowing automation of many of the manual processes in older legacy networks. This automation allows greater reliability, less human error and targeted cost reductions.

For example, Verizon is looking to reduce 47,000 positions (around 30% of the workforce) by next year. Telstra has also flagged a labour reduction, targeting 8,000 positions.

Unlike legacy networks, the greater automation employed by next-generation networks will allow telcos to evolve tiered pricing structures for corporate clients. Telcos will monetise the increasing demand for speed and connectivity, rather than becoming ‘dumb pipes’.

Connected to incremental revenue

With the rollout of 4G, smartphone penetration grew rapidly, driving the ‘app economy’. Similarly, the rollout and adoption of 5G, and the greater speed and capacity it offers, are likely to lead to more connected devices and new uses which are yet to be conceived. Think autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, surgery, wearable devices, gaming, smart homes etc.

This is all incremental revenue for a telco as it will leverage the existing infrastructure. Some investment will be required to capture this but, we believe, it will be within the current capex envelope (outside of the spectrum auctions).

The long-term picture

However, this will be a multi-year process. Most telcos will roll out a 5G network in line with customer demand, but customers will wait for 5G-enabled handsets to hit the market.

Samsung and some of the Chinese handset manufacturers are due to launch 5G-enabled devices in the first half of 2019. But it won’t be until Apple releases its 5G handset next year that we will see a consumer shift to 5G, given Apple has a 54% share of the handset market (according to Statista, market share of mobile devices in Australia, year to April 2018).

It is shaping to be a more positive environment for the communications sector over the next few years driven by new technology and new operating models.

 

Patrick Potts is a Research Analyst with Martin Currie Australia, a Legg Mason affiliate. Legg Mason is a sponsor of Cuffelinks. The information provided should not be considered a recommendation to purchase or sell any particular security. It should not be assumed that any of the security transactions discussed here were, or will prove to be, profitable. Please consider the appropriateness of this information, in light of your own objectives, financial situation or needs before making any decision.

For more articles and papers from Legg Mason, please click here.

 

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