Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Facing Disconnection; Hard Choices for Europe's Telcos

Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Facing Disconnection; Hard Choices for Europe's Telcos

Article excerpt

Two years ago, the fate of the Continent's telecom companies seemed to depend on their willingness to enter new markets aggressively and acquire expensive assets. Now, survival may depend on a selective retreat.

It once seemed that Europe's telecommunications operators could do no wrong: emboldened by a general belief that they would reap outrageous benefits from the rise of the Internet and from even newer technologies such as the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), their shares were star performers. But the bright future that seemed so assured a year ago has disintegrated into uncertainty. After leading the bull market up to the year 2000, the telecom sector is now leading the downturn, and day-to-day trading remains volatile. Many players are struggling to survive.

Blame for the industry's change of fortune can be apportioned among various factors. Most incumbent operators, in their enthusiasm to capture a share of the telecom boom, amassed huge debts, largely from the scramble to stay ahead in the wireless arena. Over the past two years alone, companies spent $46 billion for third-generation (3G) mobile licenses in Germany and $36 billion for licenses in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, new technologies such as WAP and UMTS (the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) failed to take off. Finally, the gap between the best and the worst performers in the market widened across business lines, making it even more difficult for the laggards to attract capital to pursue their growth strategies. Without a truly significant breakthrough that would generate additional revenue--along the lines of prepaid telephone cards, which introduced mobile telephones to a new group of customers--it is difficult to see how some integrated incumbents will regain healthy growth rates or even survive.

The sector must therefore contemplate a fundamental restructuring. The present market structure in Western Europe--five large integrated incumbents and ten smaller integrated companies, most catering to national markets and generally holding majority stakes in several business areas -- can't be sustained. Most companies will have to embark quickly on the unpalatable task of shedding their assets and stepping away from areas they thought were core businesses.

When they have done so, Europe will be left with two or three large integrated telecom companies holding majority stakes in data, wireless, and wireline services. Some of the remaining companies, generally incumbents in small countries, will have become more focused; others will have dropped everything except their wireline operations or succumbed to takeover. The timing is difficult to predict, but these changes are likely to unfold over the next five years (see sidebar, "The timing remains unclear").

The need for less debt and greater scale

In the absence of a market breakthrough, overall revenue growth for the telecom sector is likely to fall by 2004 from the heady 20 percent realized in 1999 to levels approaching the growth rates of Europe's gross domestic products (Exhibit 1). Such anemic progress won't satisfy the expectations of the market and will make it harder for incumbents to service their debt.

The remedy for most companies lies in abandoning efforts to compete in all three main business areas: wireline, wireless, and data services. Wireline generates about 70 percent of total gross cash flows for most incumbents, so it will remain a major cash source for all of them. But providing both wireless and data services isn't an option for them all even though these are the two most promising avenues of growth, with revenues likely to have expanded by 9 and 10 percent a year, respectively, by 2004. Most companies will have to choose between the two, and some of them will have to be content with offering only wireline services because they lack the scale and buying power that are so important for success in the wireless and data markets. …

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