France Telecom SA (FTE) predicts it will keep grabbing market share in Spain by offering subsidized smartphones, beating rivals Vodafone Group Plc (VOD) and Telefonica SA (TEF) which abandoned this approach.
“There’s no need to end subsidies,” Jean Marc Vignolles, chief executive officer of France Telecom’s Orange Spain unit, the country’s third-biggest phone operator, said in an interview at the company’s Madrid office. “I have not personally seen any evidence that our two competitors have benefited from such a radical move. They’ve suffered commercially.”
Telefonica and Vodafone, Spain’s biggest and second-biggest phone companies, respectively, this year stopped subsidising smartphones as part of longer-term contracts. That helped Orange attract users wanting a handset without having to pay for it up-front as Spain experiences its worst economic crisis in decades and the highest unemployment rate in the European Union.
Orange’s strategy is working as Telefonica, Europe’s most indebted phone company, needs to cut spending to preserve cash, said Alexander Wisch, an analyst at S&P Capital IQ Equity Research in London.
“Other operators including Orange are grabbing market share. Telefonica is aware of that but its priority is to conserve cash,” he said. “I don’t think this is sustainable in the long term, but in the short term it is definitely good in terms of cash conservation.”
France Telecom dropped 1 percent to 8.15 euros in Paris trading as of 1:17 p.m. while Telefonica declined 0.1 percent to 10.15 euros in Madrid and Vodafone fell 0.8 percent to 157.85 pence in London.
Orange Spain’s nine-month revenue climbed 1.2 percent to 3 billion euros ($3.83 billion), making the country France Telecom’s second-biggest by sales. Madrid-based Telefonica’s nine-month revenue from Spain fell 13 percent, while Vodafone’s service revenue at its Spanish unit dropped 11 percent in the six months through September.
While offering subsidied smartphones can boost sales, it can also reduce profit margins because carriers often sell the devices at a loss to get customers to sign one-year or two-year contracts. Users of devices such as the Apple Inc. (AAPL) iPhone are lucrative in the long run because they spend more money each month to surf the Web, send e-mail and watch videos.
Vignolles didn’t specify the effect of subsidies on Orange’s profitability, saying that he’s focused on “profitable growth.” In the first half, Orange Spain’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization climbed 19 percent to 455 million euros.
To win customers, Telefonica and Vodafone are now bundling packages that offer products in combination at a saving. Telefonica started offering its Movistar Fusion bundles in September that combine voice, broadband and pay-television offerings.
Angel Vila, Telefonica’s finance chief, has said that the removal of subsidies led to “significant savings in commercial costs.” Telefonica said this month its net debt shrank to 52.8 billion euros ($67 billion) from 58.3 billion euros in June. Its year-end target is 50 billion euros.
“Bundling won’t protect revenue in the short term, but it was a necessary pain,” Jonathan Dann, a London-based analyst at Barclays, said by phone.
Last week, Vodafone’s Spain unit started new offerings that combine Internet, voice, text messaging and cloud services.
“We no longer talk about whether or not subsidies would work,” Vodafone spokesman Pepe Romero said. “We now believe the key issue is to provide our customers with all services and a handset at a very competitive price.”
Orange Spain forecasts growth will continue at the pace of previous years, Vignolles said.
“As far as 2012 is concerned we are confident to deliver growth in line with our results so far, as the impact” of competitors’ bundled services “is rather limited,” Vignolles said. “October figures were very satisfactory. We are at the end of November and commercial momentum has not slowed.”
In September, Orange Spain gained 24,660 mobile-phone clients, raising its market share by customers to 21.21 percent from 21.07 percent in August. Telefonica lost 253,520 mobile customers and its market share fell to 36.96 percent. Vodafone lost 178,300, reducing its share to 27.42 percent, according to Spain’s telecommunications market commission, or CMT.
France Telecom is looking for growth outside its home country, where mobile operator Iliad SA (ILD) had 6.4 percent of the market at the end of September after beginning services this year with cheap packages starting at 2 euros a month.
As part of its focus on growth, Orange Spain is interested in acquisitions that could boost its market share. The company is “participating” in the sale process of TeliaSonera AB (TLSN)’s Spanish wireless unit Yoigo, Vignolles said.
Last week, Lars Nyberg, chief executive officer of TeliaSonera, Sweden’s biggest phone operator, said he isn’t in a hurry to sell Yoigo.
“We’re not in a rush either to buy Yoigo and we shouldn’t buy it at any price,” Vignolles said. “It’s clear that there will be no crazy bid from the group. We should consider, based on all conditions of the purchase agreement, whether it makes sense to make an offer or not.”
Yoigo gained 40,040 mobile phone customers in September, taking its market share to 6.11 percent, according to CMT.
Orange Spain will “clearly” be able to deliver growth in 2013 without a potential integration of Yoigo, which may also face some regulatory issues, Vignolles said.
“I prefer steady and continuous growth rather than ups and downs,” Vignolles said. “There’s no rush,” to overtake Vodafone as the second-biggest phone operator in Spain, he said.
At the end of the first nine months of this year, Orange Spain’s mobile market share by service revenue was 22.9 percent, which compares with 17.9 percent at the end of 2007, according to Vignolles.
“We have reduced the gap with obviously our leading competitors,” Vignolles said. “Our focus is on profitable growth and maintaining this pace of growth. That has accelerated very significantly in the last two years, which is evidence that our business model is strong while our competitors are facing significant issues.”
France Telecom (FTE) considers Orange Spain a strategic asset and it’s “definitely” a market where France Telecom wants to grow “despite a very challenging” economy, Vignolles said.
Spain’s government expects economic output to keep contracting next year after five rounds of austerity to tackle the budget deficit.
“We are preparing for a very tough 2013,” Vignolles said. “But we’re looking for the end of the tunnel. The company would do even better in a growing environment and results would be even more spectacular.”
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