Category Archives: Telecom

Cloudfall

More and more business is moving to the cloud and, given the concentration of providers and their interlinkages, it’s creating security challenges. In the US, 15 cloud providers account for 70% of the market.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) describes the cloud as a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.

 A cloud solution is typically architected with multiple regions, where a region is a geographical location where users can run their resources, and is typically made up of multiple zones. All major cloud providers have multiple regions, located across the globe and within the US. For example, Rackspace has the fewest number of regions at 7 whereas Microsoft Azure has the most at 36.

The industry is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 36% between 2014 and 2026, as per the graph below. Software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) are the types of cloud services sold.

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Control of the underlying cloud infrastructure of networks, servers, operating systems, and storage is the responsibility of the cloud provider, with the user having control over the deployed applications and possibly configuration settings for the application-hosting environment.

Amazingly however, the main responsibility for protecting corporate data in the cloud lies not with the cloud provider but with the cloud customer, unless specifically agreed otherwise. Jay Heiser of Gartner commented that “we are in a cloud security transition period in which focus is shifting from the provider to the customer” and businesses “are learning that huge amounts of time spent trying to figure out if any particular cloud service provider is secure or not has virtually no payback”.

An organisation called the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) issued its report on the security threats to the cloud.  These include the usual threats such as data breaches, denial of service (DoS), advanced persistent threats (APTs) and malicious insiders. For the cloud, add in threats including insufficient access management, insecure user interfaces (UIs) and application programming interfaces (APIs), and shared technology vulnerabilities.

Cyber security is an important issue today and many businesses, particularly larger business are turning to insurance to mitigate the risks to their organisations, as the graph below on cyber insurance take-up rates shows.

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Lloyds of London recently released an interesting report called Cloud Down that estimated the e-business interruption costs in the US arising from the sustained loss of access to a cloud service provider. The report estimates, using a standard catastrophic modelling framework from AIR, a cyber incident that takes a top 3 cloud provider offline in the US for 3-6 days would result in ground-up loss central estimates between $7-15 billion and insured losses between $1.5-3 billion. By necessity, the assumptions used in the analysis are fairly crude and basic.

Given the number of bad actors in the cyber world, particularly those who may intend to cause maximum disruption, security failings around the cloud could, in my view, result in losses of many multiples of those projected by Lloyds if several cloud providers are taken down for longer periods. And that’s scary.

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CenturyLink 2018 Preview

I don’t do this often but as I am travelling this week I thought I’d give some predictions on the Q4 announcement from CenturyLink (CTL) due after market close this Valentine’s Day. As my last post on the topic in August stated, I am taking a wait and see approach on CTL to assess whether enough progress has been made on the integration and balance sheet to safeguard the dividend. Although CTL is down 15% since my last post, the history of LVLT has taught me that extracting costs from a business with (at best) flat-lining revenue will be a volatile road over the coming quarters and years. Add in high debt loads in an increasing interest rate environment and any investment into CTL, with a medium term holding horizon, must be timed to perfection in this market.

The actual results for Q4 matter little, except to see revenue trends for the combined entity, particularly as according to their last 10Q they “expect to recognize approximately $225 million in merger-related transaction costs, including investment banker and legal fees”. They will likely kitchen sink the quarter’s results. The key will be guidance for 2018 which the new management team (e.g. the old LVLT CEO and CFO) have cautioned will only be the 2018 annual range for bottom-line metrics like EBITDA and free cashflow. Although many analysts know the LVLT management’s form, it may take a while for the wider Wall Street to get away from top line trends, particularly in the rural consumer area, and to measuring CTL primarily as a next generation enterprise communication provider.

At a recent investor conference, the CFO Sunit Patel gave some further colour on their targets. Capex would be set at 16% of revenues, the target for margin expansion is 5%-7% over the next 3 to 5 years reflected cost synergies coming into effect faster than previously indicated, and they will refocus the consumer business on higher speeds “more surgically [in terms of return on capital] in areas that have higher population densities, better socioeconomic demographics, better coexistence with businesses and where wireless infrastructure might be needed”. Based upon these targets and assuming average LIBOR of 3% and 4% for 2018 and 2019 respectively plus a flat-line annual revenue for the next 3 years (although a better revenue mix emerges), I estimate a valuation between $20 to $25 per share is justified, albeit with a lot of execution risk on achieving Sunit’s targets.

On guidance for 2018, I am hoping for EBITDA guidance around $9.25 billion and capex of $4 billion. I would be disappointed in EBITDA guidance with a lower mid-point (as would the market in my view). I also estimate cash interest expense of $2.25-$2.5 billion on net debt of $36-$36.5 billion. Dividend costs for the year should be about $2.35 billion.

Wednesday’s result will be interesting, particularly the market’s assessment of the plausibility of management’s targets for this high dividend yielding stock. There is plenty of time for this story to unfold over the coming quarters. For CTL and their people, I hope it’s not a Valentine’s Day massacre.

Follow-up after results:

I am still going through the actual results released on the 14th of February but my initial reaction is that the 2018 EBITDA guidance is a lot lower than I expected. Based upon proforma 2017 EBITDA margin of 36.1%, I factored in a more rapid margin improvement for 2018 to get to the EBITDA figure of $9.25 billion than the approximate 80 basis point improvement implied in the 2018 guidance to get to the mid-point of $8.85 billion. In response to an analyst’s question on the 5%-7% margin improvement expected over the next 3 to 5 years, Sunit responded as follows:

On the EBITDA margin, to your question, I think, in general, we continue to expect to see the EBITDA margin expand nicely over the next 3 to 5 years. I think we said even at the time of the announcement that with synergies and everything pro forma, we should be north of 40% plus EBITDA margins over the next few years and we continue to feel quite confident and comfortable with that. So I think you will see the margin expansion in terms of the basis points that you described.

I will go through the figures (and maybe the 10K) to revise my estimates and post my conclusion in the near future.

CenturyLink levelled

It’s been over 6 months since I last posted on the upcoming merger of Level 3 (LVLT) and Centurylink (CTL). Since then, LVLT’s CEO Jeff Storey has been named COO of the combined entity and CEO from January 2019, after a gentle push from activist investor Keith Meister of Corvex Management (here is an article on their latest position), effectively meaning the merger is an operational LVLT takeover of CTL. In June, CTL also got hit by a lawsuit from an ex-employer alleging a high-pressure sales culture which ripped customers off (an avalanche of class action suits followed). And, potentially more damaging, the recent results of CTL continue to point to deteriorating trends in the legacy part of their business and lackluster growth on the strategic part of the business. CTL missed their quarterly estimates again in the most recent quarter, the third miss in a row.

Picking up on my recent telecom industry post, the sector will struggle in the short term to find top line growth before the full impact of new “digital lifestyle” opportunities emerge. The figures below for enterprise, including public sector, and wholesale revenues for some of the biggest US players (which have been adjusted judgmentally for items such as the impact of the XO acquisition on Verizon’s revenues and the ever-changing classifications and reclassifications that telecom’s love) illustrate the current struggle in getting newer IP enabled services to fully compensate for declining legacy revenues.

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These figures imply average quarterly declines since 2014 of -0.3% and -1.2% for enterprise and wholesale business respectively. However, the trend has been getting worse. The average quarterly change was 0.2% and -1.1% for enterprise and wholesale business respectively from 2014 to 2015. Since 2016, the average quarterly change is -0.9% and -1.3% for enterprise and wholesale respectively. Not exactly a cheery trend when contemplating the prospects of a merged CTL/LVLT!

As can be seen below, the share price of LVLT and deal implied price have converged, particularly as CTL’s dividends get paid, albeit with a sharply downward bias in recent weeks over worries about dividend sustainability, valuation, sector trends, lawsuits and uncertainty over the closing date of the merger (a delay by California, the last State approval needed, may mean the end of September deadline is missed).

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My estimates for a standalone LVLT compared to analyst figures and those presented by LVLT management in the S4 (figures presented for merger negotiations are generally on the optimistic side) are below. Even factoring in higher interest rates (about 40% of LVLT’s debt is floating) over the coming years, I am comfortable with a standalone share price around the current mid-50’s, in the unlikely event the merger falls apart.

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To recap on my confidence in the ability of LVLT’s current management team to deliver, the results of the last merger between LVLT and TWTC show that management delivered a 40% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) on flat revenues from 2014 to 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger to actual H1 results and my estimates for H2 2017). Some of my many previous posts on LVLT are here, here and here. Such a repeat in FCF in the CLT/LVLT merger is not a realistic expectation given the larger scale and different business mix, as the analysis below illustrates. Of course, the flat revenues over the past 3 years is a key concern (but worthy of praise given the industry trends highlighted above) and one of the catalysts for the CLT deal. Also, the health of designate CEO Jeff Storey may also be a factor over the next few years given his heart issues a few year ago.

My knowledge of CTL’s business is not as deep as that of LVLT’s and my confidence in their prospects on a standalone basis is nowhere near as lofty. My projections, split over a conservative base scenario and a more conservative low business scenario, can be seen below. My projections are primarily based upon the more recent trends in their business lines across their legacy and strategic enterprise and consumer businesses. The vast variance in my estimates, based upon recent trends, and those presented by management in the S4 (again, acknowledging that these are generally optimistic) illustrates why the market has lost such confidence in the outgoing management team at CTL, in my opinion.

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In terms of trying to model the merged CTL/LVLT, I have assumed the deal closes by the end of 2017 with 2018 being the first year of the merged entity. I have made a number of judgmental adjustments in my model, including assuming some loss of revenue due to the merger and cost reductions above published target synergies (e.g. $1 billion of operating synergies by end 2020 and $150 million of capex synergies by end 2019, higher than the announced target savings of $850 million and $125 million for opex and capex respectively). I have taken analyst estimates as an optimistic case (in CTL’s case I have taken their EBITDA estimates but still can’t get anywhere near their revenue figures) and called it the high scenario. My two projections above are used for the base and low scenarios. The resulting operating metrics for each scenario is shown below.

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The high scenario shows revenues flat-lining slightly above $24 billion for 2018 and 2019 with top-line growth returning in 2020 (YoY above 2.5%). EBITDA margins hit 40% by 2019 and remain stable around 40% thereafter. Capex is assumed to hit 15.5% of revenues by 2019 and remain at that percentage thereafter. This scenario assumes that management will be able to generate an approximate 30% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) from 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger) to FY 2020.

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The base scenario shows revenues flat-lining around $23.5 billion for 2018 through 2020 with top-line growth returning in 2021 (YoY just below 2%). EBITDA margins hit 40% by 2019 and slowly trend down toward 39% thereafter. Capex is again assumed to hit 15.5% of revenues by 2019 and remain at that percentage thereafter. This scenario assumes that management will be able to generate an approximate 22% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) from 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger) to FY 2020.

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The low scenario shows revenues around $23.5 billion for 2018 and drifting down to $23 billion before slowly hitting $23.5 billion again by 2022. Thereafter revenue growth builds slowly from 1.5% to 2.5% by 2027. EBITDA margins hit 39.5% by 2019 and slowly trend down toward 38.5% thereafter. Capex is again assumed to hit 15.5% of revenues by 2019 and remain at that percentage thereafter. This scenario assumes that management will be able to generate an approximate 18% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) from 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger) to FY 2020.

I also assume the merged entity will carry $38 billion of debt from the offset (resulting from merger expenses, the cash payout to LVLT shareholders, and existing debts from both firms, after factoring any proceeds from recent CTL divestitures). I estimate that only 30% of this debt load is subject to a floating rate. In all scenarios, I assume the LIBOR rate linked to the floating rate increases incrementally by 275 basis points over the next 3 years (the current 12 month US rate is about 175 basis points). With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of approximately 3.8 at the end of 2018 across all scenarios, I believe that getting that ratio below 3 within 4 years by 2021, at the latest, will be a primary objective of the new management team. That would only be prudent in my view given the likely tightening monetary environment over the next few years which will punish valuations of corporates with high debt levels. Also, management will want to remain flexible if higher capex is needed to compete in new technologies for the IoT and digital lifestyle era (see recent sector post). I haven’t factored in an upside from LVLT’s CFO Sunit Patel proven ability to actively manage debt rates and maturities (his ability is highlighted by the fact that LVLT’s fixed debt costs 5.5% compared to CTL’s admittingly much larger fixed debt costing 6.8%)

That leads to the thorny question of the sustainability of the annual dividend of $2.16 per share (particularly given that share count will double, amounting to $2.3 billion per year). Under the high scenario, maintaining the current dividend and getting the net debt multiple below 3 by 2021 is doable if a little tight (primarily due to the cashflow benefits of LVLT’s NOLs). For both of the base and low scenarios maintaining the current dividend level is not realistic in my view, with a cut in the dividend to $1.30 and $1.00 needed in each scenario respectively (a 40% and a 55% cut). The current dividend yield on CTL is over 10%. Each of the cuts above would reduce that yield to approximately 6% and 5% for the base and low scenarios respectively based upon the current share price. Addressing the uncertainty over the dividend should be one of the priorities of the new management (and may even result in Jeff Storey’s move to the CEO position ahead of the planned January 2019 date).

Finally, before I reveal my per share valuations, I haven’t given any consideration to the financial impact of the current legal cases on alleged aggressive sales tactics as the level of current detail makes any such estimate impossible. Some of the class action cases claim anything from $600 million to $12 billion but these claims are always bloated and the eventual settlement figure, if there even is one, are often for a lot less than that claimed. Nor have I considered the potential impact of a spin-off of the consumer business (that’s for another time!).

So, based upon the analysis outlined in this post and using a discount rate of 8.5%, my valuation estimates for each of the three scenarios are below.

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The market’s current valuation of CTL around $20 indicates scenario 3 as the current expectation. This emphasizes the need to address the uncertainty over future dividend levels and the validity of the legal cases. Uncertainty over the closing date of the deal is overblown, in my view, and a few months of delay will not prove material. I do think the current valuation is harsh, given the potential upsides from the deal and longer-term industry trends. Interestingly, my base scenario valuation of £31 is not too far off the value of $34.75 by BofA Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley in the S4 (see this post on the S4). The base scenario is the one I would have the most confidence in, based upon my current knowledge, rather than the high scenario of $43 which does look too optimistic to me given current market trends.

I was never going to reinvest the cash component of the deal for LVLT shareholders given my current reservations about market valuations and move to cash across my portfolio. The analysis presented in this post indicates to me that the CTL shares due from the deal for LVLT shareholders are worth holding from a valuation perspective. For now.

For new investors, I’d wait to see how some of the uncertainties play out, particularly the dividend issue.

Telecoms’ troubles

The telecom industry is in a funk. S&P recently said that their “global 2017 base-case forecast is for flat revenues” and other analysts are predicting little growth in traditional telecom’s top line over the coming years across most developed markets. This recent post shows that wireless revenue by the largest US firms has basically flatlined with growth of only 1% from 2015 to 2016. Cord cutting in favour of wireless has long been a feature of incumbent wireline firms but now wireless carrier’s lunch is increasingly being eaten by disruptive new players such as Facebook’s messenger, Apple’s FaceTime, Googles’ Hangouts, Skype, Tencent’s QQ or WeChat, and WhatsApp. These competitors are called over the top (OTT) providers and they use IP networks to provide communications (e.g. voice & SMS), content (e.g. video) and cloud-based (e.g. compute and storage) offerings. The telecom industry is walking a fine line between enabling these competitors whilst protecting their traditional businesses.

The graph below from a recent TeleGeography report provides an illustration of what has happened in the international long-distance business.

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A recent McKinsey article predicts that in an aggressive scenario the share of messaging, fixed voice, and mobile voice revenue provided by OTT players could be within the ranges as per the graph below by 2018.

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Before the rapid rise of the OTT player, it was expected that telecoms could recover the loss of revenue from traditional services through increased data traffic over IP networks. Global IP traffic has exploded from 26 exabytes per annum in 2005 to 1.2 zettabytes in 2016 and is projected to grow, by the latest Cisco estimates here, at a CAGR of 24% to 2012. See this previous post on the ever-expanding metrics used for IP traffic (for reference, gigabyte/terabyte/petabyte/exabyte/zettabyte/yottabyte is a kilobyte to the power of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 respectively).

According to the 2017 OTT Video Services Study conducted by Level 3 Communications, viewership of OTT video services, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, will overtake traditional broadcast TV within the next five years, impacting cable firms and traditional telecom’s TV services alike. With OTT players eating telecom’s lunch, Ovum estimate a drop in spending on traditional communication services by a third over the next ten years.

Telecom and cable operators have long complained of unfair treatment given their investments in upgrading networks to handle the vast increase in data created by the very OTT players that are cannibalizing their revenue. For example, Netflix is estimated to consume as much as a third of total network bandwidth in the U.S. during peak times. Notwithstanding their growth, it’s important to see these OTT players as customers of the traditional telecoms as well as competitors and increasingly telecoms are coming to understand that they need to change and digitalise their business models to embrace new opportunities. The graphic below, not to scale, on changing usage trends illustrates the changing demands for telecoms as we enter the so called “digital lifestyle era”.

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The hype around the internet of things (IoT) is getting deafening. Just last week, IDC predicted that “by 2021, global IoT spending is expected to total nearly $1.4 trillion as organizations continue to invest in the hardware, software, services, and connectivity that enable the IoT”.

Bain & Co argue strongly in this article in February that telecoms, particularly those who have taken digital transformation seriously in their own operating models, are “uniquely qualified to facilitate the delivery of IoT solutions”. The reasons cited include their experience of delivering scale connectivity solutions, of managing extensive directories and the life cycles of millions of devices, and their strong position developing and managing analytics at the edge of the network across a range of industries and uses.

Upgrading network to 5G is seen as being necessary to enable the IoT age and the hype around 5G has increased along with the IoT hype and the growth in the smartphone ecosystem. But 5G is in a development stage and technological standards need to be finalised. S&P commented that “we don’t expect large scale commercial 5G rollout until 2020”.

So what can telecoms do in the interim about declining fundamentals? The answer is for telecoms to rationalise and digitalize their business. A recent McKinsey IT benchmarking study of 80 telecom companies worldwide found that top performers had removed redundant platforms, automated core processes, and consolidated overlapping capabilities. New technologies such as software-defined networks (SDN) and network-function virtualization (NFV) mean telecoms can radically reshape their operating models. Analytics can be used to determine smarter capital spending, machine learning can be used to increase efficiency and avoid overloads, back offices can be automated, and customer support can be digitalized. This McKinsey article claims that mobile operators could double their operating cashflow through digital transformation.

However, not all telecoms are made the same and some do not have a culture that readily embraces transformation. McKinsey say that “experience shows that telcoms have historically only found success in transversal products (for example, security, IoT, and cloud services for regional small and medium-size segments)” and that in other areas, “telcoms have developed great ideas but have failed to successfully execute them”.

Another article from Bain & Co argues that only “one out of eight providers could be considered capital effective, meaning that they have gained at least 1 percentage point of market share each year over the past five years without having spent significantly more than their fair share of capital to do so”. As can be seen below, the rest of the sector is either caught in an efficiency trap (e.g. spent less capital than competitors but not gaining market share) or are just wasteful wit their capex spend.

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So, although there are many challenges for this sector, there is also many opportunities. As with every enterprise in this digital age, it will be those firms who can execute at scale that will likely to be the big winners. Pure telecommunications companies could become extinct or so radically altered in focus and diversity of operations that telecoms as a term may be redundant. Content production could be mixed with delivery to make joint content communication giants. Or IT services such as security, cloud services, analytics, automation and machine learning could be combined with next generation intelligent networks. Who knows! One thing is for sure though, the successful firms will be the ones with management teams that can execute a clear strategy profitably in a fast changing competitive sector.

Warring Wireless

The M&A permutations being talked about in the US telecom sector are fascinating. The AT&T/Time Warner deal has commentators frothing at the mouth about possible tie-ups, particularly given the laissez faire attitude to regulation of the new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai. Names such as DISH, Comcast, Disney, Netflix, SiriusXM, Charter are regularly tied to the big telcos and/or each other in the speculation.

Existing wireless revenues from AT&T and Verizon have plateaued and are now starting to decrease due to cut throat competition on unlimited plans from T-Mobile and Sprint, as the graph below shows.

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The T-Mobile/Sprint merger is now been talked about again, after the year long FCC spectrum moratorium on competitors talking has passed. The current bidding frenzy between AT&T and Verizon over Straight Path’s millimetre wave frequencies that can be used to carry large amounts of data over short distances has brought the hype over 5G services to a new high. Verizon’s purchase of XO last year enabled them to lease XO’s 102 LMDS licenses in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands so it is somewhat surprising to see them be so aggressive in bidding for Straight Path.

The analyst Craig Moffett believes that the winning bidder for Straight Path will have significant leverage with the FCC in determining how these wave frequencies are repackaged for use by competitors. Although wireless margins are not under significant pressure, as the graph below shows, it is obvious that there is now a full scale war for control of the wavelengths that will be critical to 5G services in the search for new revenues. T-Mobile and DISH are also holders of high frequency wavelengths been touted as suitable for 5G.

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The fascinating thing about the frenzy over Straight Path is that the hype over high frequencies such as the 39 GHz band is not new. The reason such spectrum has gone largely unused in the past is that it has been historically difficult to create reliable, secure, mobile connections in those bands. Variable weather conditions, often something as common as a rainy day, can impact coverage in high frequencies. I wonder what’s changed?