The pandemic and the associated rise in working from home have highlighted the importance of effective communications networks.
But is it necessarily helping the network providers to raise their profits?
A clue was provided today with the half-year results from Vodafone.
As ever with Vodafone, the results can be interpreted any number of ways, due to one-off factors that invariably make it hard to establish how the company has performed compared with the previous year on an underlying basis.
At a headline level, Vodafone – which reports its results in euros due to most of its earnings coming in the currency – reported a half-year profit after tax of €1.6bn (£1.4bn), compared with a loss of €1.9bn (£1.7bn) a year ago.
This partly reflected a one-off gain of €1bn (£900m) following the merger of Vodafone Hutchison Australia with its rival TPG Telecom and the fact that, in the same period last year, the company wrote down the value of its business in India to zero.
Adjusted earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA), meanwhile, fell by 1.9% to €7bn (£6.2bn) – a better than expected outcome and which helped push the shares – which had fallen by 18.5% since the beginning of the year before today – up by nearly 7%.
The modest decline in EBITDA was on the back of a 2.3% drop in half year sales, to €21.4bn (£18.9bn), which in turn reflected a reduction in roaming revenues due to the collapse in international travel.
Margherita Della Valle, the chief financial officer, said that non-EU travel, which represents around two-thirds of group roaming revenue, remained depressed at around 70% down on the same period last year.
But Nick Read, the chief executive, insisted that COVID was obscuring the progress being made by Vodafone.
He said: “[COVID] hasn’t knocked us off course but it has undoubtedly had an impact on our business.
“The global pandemic has also shown that now, more than ever, society, governments and our customers and businesses rely on the critical connectivity services we provide.”
Leave aside the pandemic and there is an awful lot going on at this company.
For a start, it is in the process of demerging its towers business, Vantage Towers.
Mr Read confirmed today that the flotation on the Frankfurt stock exchange was on course to go ahead in early 2021 – with more detail on the size of the flotation due to be disclosed tomorrow.
Secondly, Vodafone is rolling out 5G networks across Europe, a capital intensive business.
Mr Read said the operator had already launched 5G services in 127 cities across nine of its European markets.
Thirdly, the company continues to invest heavily in Germany, its single most important market.
It is now 18 months since Vodafone completed the acquisition of Liberty Global’s European cable business to become Europe’s biggest broadband and cable provider.
Central to that was its market leadership in Europe’s biggest economy.
Mr Read said: “We [have] created Germany’s leading challenger for converged connectivity.
“We now have 55 million mobile connections, 11 million fixed line customers and 13 million TV subscribers.
“But the opportunity we have is even greater.
“We can reach almost 22 million homes with gigabit-capable connections.”
Fourthly, there is the ongoing process of what Mr Read describes as “digital transformation”, a drive to make the business more efficient.
As an example, Mr Read said the company had standardised its communications with customers so they could deal increasingly with it through digital interfaces, driven by artificial intelligence.
He said that, as a result, customer loyalty had now improved in eight consecutive quarters.
Mr Read added that Vodafone was “far from finished” in this area and was aiming to save €1bn by 2023.
Other growth opportunities include Africa, where Vodafone is now the leading provider of data and payments, with more than 170 million customers.
It is market leader in seven countries, including Egypt and South Africa, with mobile payments expected to top 13bn this year.
Mr Read also identified Vodafone Business, which partners with the likes of IBM, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft to support business customers as they digitise.
All of this sounds very exciting and may come as a surprise to UK customers who merely think of Vodafone as a mobile operator.
But the big challenge Mr Read has with his investors is to convince them that, after two decades of buying and selling businesses and investing billions in mobile spectrum auctions and the roll-out of 3G, 4G and now 5G services, Vodafone is capable of generating superior returns.
At present, as he admitted today, the return on capital achieved by Vodafone remains below its weighted average cost of capital.
Companies only generate value for shareholders when the former is greater than the latter.
Mr Read said in today’s presentation to investors: “Our industry clearly involves a high degree of capital intensity so how we allocate your capital is of real importance.
“It’s critical we have a credible and actionable plan to deliver a return of capital on top of our cost of capital in each individual market.”
He said that, as a result, Vodafone continued to look at all of its assets and, if those assets and the company as a whole did not benefit from Vodafone owning them, it would always consider the alternatives.
He pointed out that Vodafone had offloaded assets in each of Qatar, New Zealand and Malta in recent times where that test had been failed.
“We are only part way through our multi-year journey and have more to do to drive sustainable shareholder value,” Mr Read concluded.
“We must do more to drive shareholder returns through efficiency and growth.”
The early years of this century saw Vodafone embark on a quest for world domination and flag-planting in numerous countries.
The last decade or so has seen it – partly due to the need to bring down debt – exiting certain markets where it did not have the scale to compete effectively.
With debt still an issue, the next few years will be all about the business of grinding out efficiency improvements and taking out cost, while ensuring every euro invested will more than pay for itself.
And, with customers having what Mr Read today described as “an insatiable demand for data”, that investment will be unavoidable.