Virgin: stop whinging and deal with the debt
Sky battle self-inflicted
Analysis Virgin Media used its quarterly conference call last week to throw another tantrum at Sky. What's ridiculous is that most of Virgin Media's current problems are self inflicted. The dispute with Sky involves a few tens of millions in fees: that's dwarfed by the amount of debt the group now carries. Without new capital, the cable giant's future looks bleak.
Let's have a look at the balance sheet.
The cable industry loves leverage: this has been the case since the early days of US cable, and the model was perfected by John Malone at TCI over many decades. The theory goes that the interest payments eat all the profits, and therefore no tax needs to be paid over to the government. The cash flows guarantee the debt, and the cash flows steadily rise over time given that monopoly rents can eventually be extracted. The leverage leads to greater shareholder returns on a percentage basis than a non-leveraged business model, especially as the business is valued on multiples of cash flow.
The corollary of this is that in times of falling cash flows or rising interest rates the equity can easily and quickly be wiped out and the debt holders take over. This is what effectively happened in the UK cable industry a few years ago: ntl ran around buying as many cable systems as possible using bondholders' money and then didn't generate enough cash flow to keep the bondholders happy. The bondholders effectively took over the company, installed new management, bought the only other UK cable system of any serious size, bought a MVNO to give it an ultra-fashionable quad play, and more importantly a fresh brand.
So at the end of Q1, Virgin Media had net debt of £5.7bn, with a weighted average cost of debt of 7.9 per cent. This equates to around £454m of annual interest charges. Most of the debt is in US Dollars and floating rate, which probably means the skills of the Virgin Media Treasury department in predicting future interest and exchange rates are far more important than any contract negotiations with Sky.
Cable: where's the investment?
Virgin Media loves to use operating cash flow (OCF) metrics, which it claims is a good measure of the underlying performance of the business.
However, I'm old fashioned and prefer to look at the cash flow statement, which shows net cash provided by operating activities of £106m, whereas net cash used in investing activities is £147.9m. This implies a cash outflow from the business of £41.9m, although this includes interest charges of around £110m.
This is really, really important - because if things continue as in Q1, Virgin Media will not be around for much longer without generating some cash or changing the capital structure of the business. Of course, the extremely poor Q1 cash flow could simply be due to seasonal factors. However, Q1 2006 net cash generated by operating activities was £207.3m and capital expenditure was lower than in 2007. So Q1 2007 was not a blip.
The Virgin Media capex statement in itself is extremely interesting because it shows that it is capitalising the cost of customer premises equipment, (CPE) or set top boxes. CPE accounted for £62.5m out of total quarterly capex of £152.9m . Another way of looking at this is that CPE costs do not feature in the Virgin Media OCF calculation as they are depreciated below the line.
As far as I'm aware, BSkyB immediately writes off the cost of CPE as part of subscriber management costs and, in fact, ownership of the box transfers to the customers. It is hardly surprising that BSkyB charges for its HD and Sky+ boxes, whereas Virgin Media gives them away like candy.
Even more interesting is that Virgin Media only spent £3.5m on upgrading or rebuilding systems, with an additional £15.4m spent on "scalable infrastructure". This is hardly the spend of a cable company busy upgrading its systems getting ready for DOCSIS 3.0 and 50meg to the home. In fact, it smacks of a company spending the absolute minimum to keep things going.
TV and telephony
Virgin Media appears to have done extremely well attracting TV customers in the first quarter with 36,000 net adds on marketable homes of 12.7 million. BSkyB added 51,000 TV customers in the UK and Ireland on marketable homes of 26.8 million.
In fact, Virgin Media added 75,200 digital TV customers - more than Sky added in a much smaller addressable area. However, Virgin Media lost 39,100 analogue TV customers. Sky can hardly be blamed for Virgin Media still having 309,000 analogue customers, even after a decline of 220,000 year on year.
I would argue strongly that Virgin Media should be upgrading its network and customers and then we could compare apples with apples in the payTV market.
Telephony is an area in which Virgin Media is struggling after losing 182,000 customers year on year. Unbelievably, Virgin Media doesn't blame Sky for its problems, but instead focuses on Carphone Warehouse launching its free broadband offer. I think this is also missing the mark. Instead, Virgin should be focusing on its own actions: to go a full 12 months without reacting and not expecting major churn is more than a little naïve.
I estimate that Virgin Media still has around 398,000 single play telephony customers, which is a drop of around 235,000 year-on-year: bear in mind some of these customers could have been upsold broadband or TV as well as others churning off the network.
Virgin Media was charging these customers £11 per month line rental plus call charges – obviously there were better deals in the market. These 398,000 telephony-only customers, and additionally the 309,000 analogue TV customers, represent the soft vulnerable underbelly of the Virgin Media customer base.
But what about broadband, which Virgin Media executives regard as their strongest suit?
Broadband: a bright spot
Someone on the analyst call remarked that the Virgin Media net additions in on-net broadband are quite low as a percentage of the overall market, at only 89,000. I'm not so sure. The broadband penetration of homes passed, at 26.7 per cent, is actually really good, and I think cable broadband must be outselling DSL in most common areas. I tend to agree with the Virgin Media execs who say that broadband is potentially the Virgin Media ace in hole, but I am a little concerned that it will lose the advantage over time through a lack of investment in capex.
First of all, Virgin is keeping quite mum over the roll-out plans for docsis3, but making lots of noise about 50meg to the home. It seems obvious that in its current state Virgin Media can't afford a rapid nationwide rollout of docsis3 technology to the UK.
Secondly, I am concerned about the recent capping applied to heavy downloaders. In a scenario where there is no capacity constraints, no capping would be required, and obviously caps destroy the urban myth that the cable network is magically different than the ADSL network. To be fair, Virgin Media caps are still probably the least restrictive of all consumer ISPs in the UK.
Business and mobile: churn to come
Business is a very important segment to Virgin Media – representing £163m of revenues in Q1 compared to £637m across the whole of the consumer segment. I was extremely interested to hear murmurs that the business might be up for sale. Personally, I just can't see how the consumer and business segments could be separated. I also think Virgin Media has never fully exploited its network assets especially in the SME sector.
Virgin Mobile has effectively withdrawn from third party acquisition, and this accounts for the falling subscriber numbers and the increased OCF in Q1. I believe this is a very interesting change of approach, but Virgin Media has to be really quick in building its own distribution network and gaining traction on its base. I am currently a total non-believer in the quad play, but if Virgin Media could minimise subscriber acquisition costs, allied to a very good network services contract with T-Mobile and generate enough traffic, I could be converted in the near future.
I am certain the prepaid MVNO model that Virgin Mobile operated upon previously has a very short life span. The figures published in Q1 imply there is some pain to come in bridging the gap: a drop in prepaid numbers allied to an increase in contract customers should theoretically indicate a jump in ARPU figures. The fact Virgin Media's ARPU has dropped by five per cent without a big drop in prepaid rates, implies there is a large number of people with very low activity – in other words there is a big buffer of churners to come.
Despite the well published drop in Sky payments, the division actually managed to increase OCF. Apparently, the increase was all due to litigation - enough said.
Virgin Media was struggling before the partially self-inflicted wound of the removal of Sky Basics channels from the Virgin Media TV offering. I feel that Virgin Media is using Sky as a convenient scapegoat for its lack of performance in the ultra-competitive UK communications market.
The other problem for Virgin Media is that when you examine the BSkyB recent quarterly results - especially when you look at its cash flow performance - it is also suffering, but the big difference is that Sky is making large infrastructure investments in developing a triple play.
Another problem is that after the noise abates and the economists have spent months or years studying the UK communications market, I can't see how anyone can say that that Sky is a monopolist. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Sky gains more flexibility because convergence has actually reduced its historical market power.
But the biggest problem for Virgin Media is that its balance sheet is based upon the premise of extracting monopoly rents from appreciating assets. Unfortunately for Virgin Media, there is no monopoly in the UK market or even a situation comparable to the US cable companies, and neither is there likely to be. Furthermore, I don't believe that even political and media lobbying of gargantuan proportions will change the situation. ®
This article first appeared on the Telebusillis  blog.