Ringing up growth

The telecoms industry has enjoyed a generally good start to the reporting season, with a number of companies providing figures that beat expectations. In a further possible sign of revival for the sector, two companies in Europe are preparing stockmarket flotations. Three years after Europe’s last significant initial public offering – France Telecom’s flotation of Orange in February 2001 – minority shareholders in Belgian firm Belgacom and private equity owners of Irish company Eircom are pushing for flotations to capitalise on increased investor sentiment for the sector. There has even been speculation that Eircom may list on the London Stock Exchange. Both companies are regarded as domestically focused utilities. Analysts, however, have expressed some scepticism about the flotations, particularly Eircom’s, because of their growth potential compared with international mobile operators in the sector. Indeed, there have been some encouraging reports from the telecom sector in the first six weeks of 2004. In between all the speculation surrounding a possible bid for AT&T Wireless, Vodafone managed to report that it had added 4.3 million customers in the last three months of 2003, which was slightly above analysts’ expectations and took its worldwide customer base to 130.4 million. In the UK, Vodafone increased its subscriber base by 464,000 to nearly 14 million, which was its fastest rate of growth since March 2001. But the company also reported that revenue from non-voice services only comprises 15.9% of total revenues, and may not reach its 20% target by the end of the year. mmO2 attracted a further 855,000 customers in the last three months of 2003, while its German operation had a net addition of 335,000 subscribers. This takes its total customer base to 20.1 million. In the same quarter, mmO2 revealed, 4.5 million picture messages were sent by customers and 5% of its user base had camera phones. Data services rose from 19.4% to account for 21.2% of revenues. Orange also reported growth in picture messages, revealing growth from 1.5 million being sent in the third quarter of 2003 to 4.2 million in the fourth quarter. Orange also added 2.2 million customers across Europe in the fourth quarter to bring its subscriber base to just under 50 million. By adding 278,000 customers in the UK to take its total to 13.65 million, it enjoyed its best performance for 18 months. Even Ericsson cheered the market by returning to profit in the fourth quarter of 2003 (£7.3m) and announcing that it expects slight growth in its sector this year. But there are still concerns over the growth potential of companies such as Ericsson and Nokia. For example, Nokia increased revenues from £6.05bn in 1997 to £20.75bn in 2000 but, in 2003, Nokia’s revenues were £20.14bn.