Mobile & Telecoms

Could the ‘new normal’ see ISPs eat operators’ lunch?

The other day I got an email from O2 to say it was time for a phone upgrade and as I logged into my O2 app—a rare occurrence may I add because, who actually uses their operator app?—I was met with several contract offers for shiny new devices. As I made my way through the available plans, O2 gave me the option of viewing my previous data usage to understand which data plan would make the most sense for me going forward. Looking back over the last five months, my data consumption has rarely exceeded 1GB—lockdown has meant that instead of relying on outdoor mobile data as I usually would have done whilst travelling to and from work, going out at weekends etc, I’ve instead been entirely reliant on my indoor Wi-Fi. So it got me thinking, is the ‘new normal’ going to see consumers’ relationship with operators change?

As I uhm and ah about which new plan to go on and which device to purchase, I can’t help but think that paying for 5GB, 10GB, or 15GB of data is just a waste of money, especially when so much time is now spent at home. Yes, we’re easing out of lockdown but the way we work and live has probably been changed forever. For me, I doubt I’ll ever return to the office “full time” and at least for the remainder of this year, I see myself continuing to work from home, especially as a second wave firmly looms in the distance.

Prior to this COVID-19 nightmare, I had opted to go with O2 because I liked the idea of having access to O2 priority, and two years ago when I needed a new phone, they offered me the best deal (via Carphone Warehouse, RIP hun). But now, given that concerts and events probably won’t be a thing for a while yet, I’m not sure O2 have much of a differentiator compared to other providers. And no, Disney+ is just not going to cut it, even if it is the only platform on which I can watch Beyonce’s Black Is King.

So, aside from taking my money and sending me monthly texts letting me know that my bill spend is capped at £0.00, what is O2 really doing for me? Well, honestly, not much. And as I see my reliance fall onto my ISP—which in this case is Sky—I wonder if I need to think about bundling. Should I get my mobile and my broadband from the same provider? After all, I’d still be using O2’s network, but acquiring the services via Sky, so why not consolidate?

I can imagine that many people will be thinking similarly, why continue to pay for both mobile and broadband subscriptions when you can probably bundle the two and get a better price? For ISPs, this change in consumer habits could be a welcome revenue generator, but for mobile operators, it’s yet another indication that they need to go beyond connectivity to prove their relevance.

With 5G investment so high, and with the UK’s operators now footing a predicted £2bn bill to remove Huawei out of their infrastructure, there’ll be increased pressure to monetise both existing network assets and future ones. When we think about the cost of subscriber acquisition for an operator, they simply can’t afford to see an increase in churn if consumers move towards their ISP for mobile data plans. And it’s not just churn they have to worry about, many subscribers—myself included—are going to be reluctant to upgrade to more expensive plans if they know they’re just not going to make use of their mobile data, so cross-sell and up-sell opportunities are going to be limited meaning that increasing Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) will continue to be an uphill battle. But perhaps more importantly, operators must avoid becoming a dump pipe. Subscribers deserting to the ISP dark side will see operators become mere infrastructure providers, but if they are to compete and stay afloat in this digital landscape, they must do much, much more than that.

For me, I’m not sure whether I’ll stay with O2 or whether I’ll give Sky Mobile a go, but one thing’s for sure, I’ll be looking for the cheapest option. And if that means ditching O2 for an ISP, well in the words of our queen Beyonce, boy bye.


Written by Anais Merlin


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