How a Merger of Virgin Media and O2 Will Impact Consumers

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(Bloomberg) -- Combining O2, the U.K.’s largest mobile phone operator, with Virgin Media, the nation’s second-largest broadband provider, could reshape the market for consumers as much as the telecommunications industry.

A tie-up between the U.K. broadband and mobile units of Liberty Global Plc and Telefonica SA, could be announced as soon as this week, and both companies offer a roster of perks and offers to tempt customers, many of which they’re uniquely positioned to offer -- and with minimal existing crossover.

Live Streaming

O2 is a pure-play wireless carrier with no TV product of its own, so it bundles services like Amazon Prime Video into new contracts. Conversely, Virgin Media gives its TV subscribers free mobile apps that let them stream live and on-demand channels, but incentives to use them on a Virgin Mobile service -- such as having their data usage being excluded from a customer’s monthly allowance -- don’t exist.

There would be ample opportunity for Virgin to offer an on-demand TV streaming mobile product that, if used on an O2 phone, didn’t eat into a customer’s data allowance. It’s a strategy already used by rival EE -- customers of that carrier can choose a service plan that excludes TV services such as the BBC and Netflix Inc. from using up bundled data allowances.

Fiber Promotion

Swathes of British households don’t currently get their mobile phone from the same provider as their TV or broadband, which is often the best way to get the cheapest deals, so it opens up an opportunity for cost-savings (for consumers) and market growth (for providers).

Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that 6.5 million U.K. broadband homes use O2’s mobile services, of which about 3.5 million may fall within Virgin Media’s footprint. “A merger would provide an opportunity to target about 2.2 million homes not already using Virgin Media to switch to the cable operator’s broadband platform,” BI analyst Matthew Bloxham said in a note.

5G

Still, despite selling some of the fastest broadband widely available in the U.K., Virgin’s mobile product only offers 4G speeds. To get a next-generation 5G connection, customers need to go to one of its competitors. The company said in November it had inked a deal with Vodafone Group Plc to start selling a 5G product, but that’s not expected to arrive until 2021.

A merger with O2 could change that. The carrier has already started to roll out 5G phones with unlimited data plans ripe for use with high-definition television and movie streaming, alongside competitors. Having these as incentives to bring a Virgin Media broadband and TV customer in-house from a mobile rival wouldn’t be hard to justify building into a combined package.

Live Events

For more than a decade, O2 has used the concerts and performances held in its London arena and other smaller venues around the U.K. as ways to attract customers. The network gives them pre-sale access to tickets for thousands of shows, which have included sell-out names such as Fleetwood Mac, Lewis Capaldi, and Rod Stewart.

Extending such offers to Virgin Media customers could benefit them, as well as any O2-branded venues with seats to fill in post-pandemic Britain, when mass gatherings are likely to be challenging to coordinate. In the past, some performances at the O2 Arena in London have been so popular they’ve been commercially live-streamed to cinemas elsewhere in the country. Such programs could be effectively extended to millions of Virgin Media TV customers in their homes -- an effective way of bolstering the live events industry while maintaining social distancing.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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