A new dawn after Sunrise: How will Switzerland's mobile transformation play out?

Like so many telecoms markets in Europe right now, Switzerland is going through considerable upheaval. How will its mobile scene look once all the dust has settled?

For a small, seemingly stable market, telecoms in Switzerland is going through a seismic change.

This month saw Sunrise - the country's second largest telco by market share - float on the Swiss stock market. At CHF 3bn (€2.7bn), it was the biggest telecoms flotation in Europe since 2012 and the largest in Switzerland of any kind for 10 years.

Sunrise's IPO follows the acquisition last November of Orange Switzerland (number three in the market) by French telecoms tycoon Xavier Niel from private equity firm Apax.

The attraction is clear. Like Swiss banks, the telecoms companies have a wealthy clientele who don't buy on price so much as on quality of service.

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"Switzerland shows the fifth highest ARPU [average revenue per subscriber] in the world so it is clearly a lucky market, in that operators can tap into very high disposable incomes," said Dario Talmesio, principal analyst at Ovum.

"However, mobile margins in Switzerland are on par with the rest of Europe. These are not really high on a global comparison, so consolidation would help.

"The trouble is that there are only three mobile operators in the country and further consolidation is unlikely to have an easy way with the regulator."

So with competition heating up, what will the future hold for mobile providers in the land where the Alpine horn was once the communications equipment of choice?

Swisscom

The one to beat, Swisscom, is partly owned by the state, giving it certain advantages - as well as responsibilities.

The telco is investing heavily in ultra-fast broadband - from fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) to the latest fibre broadband technology such as fibre-to-the-street (FTTS), fibre-to-the-building (FTTB) and vectoring technology - with more than 1.4 million homes and businesses connected to date.

But as ZDNet has noted previously, these networks are often joint developments with other utility companies, cable companies, and local authorities, and so can also be used by rival operators.

Swisscom certainly doesn't seem to be loosening its grip on the telecommunications market, however. Figures just released for the 2014 financial year show that sales and revenue were up at the company - as were customer numbers in most areas.

Turnover rose 2.4 percent to CHF 11.7bn (€10.9bn) despite price pressures, which included a CHF 170m (159m) hit due to lower roaming prices. In fact, the reduction in charges has the potential to ultimately raise revenues longer term - as it led to a noticeable increase in the use of mobile data abroad.

Convergence has become very popular, with an increase of 23.7 percent to nearly two million customers wanting bundled services including TV, broadband, and mobile.

But where Swisscom truly scores is its rural coverage. Given the alpine landscape, mobile data coverage is remarkably good and mountain life doesn't mean a digitally disconnected one. The signal on top of some ski resorts is as good as in the towns below (although I haven't got to the summit of the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc - and am never likely to - to see if you can login from there).

Currently, some 96 percent of Swisscom customers are covered by 4G LTE networks with download speeds of up to 150Mbps. This is expected to rise to 99 percent by 2016 with theoretical download speeds of up to 450Mbps on offer by the end of this year.

Strengthening mobile data networks is nonetheless essential, to accommodate the rapid growth in data traffic, which doubled last year.

With domestic competition intense, Swisscom is looking internationally to expand, in particular to Italy.

Customer numbers at its Fastweb subsidiary rose by 6.7 percent and, whether it's benefitting from a weak Euro or not, it plans to invest more in Italy (CHF 2.3 billion) than at home (CHF 1.75 billion).

Sunrise

Sunrise set its IPO at CHF 68 (€64) per share, valuing the Switzerland's second-biggest telecom's operator at CHF 3.06bn on its first day of trading.

Initially, the timing of the flotation seemed disastrous. Zurich-based Sunrise laid out its plans for the IPO just the day before the Swiss National Bank's (SNB) surprise decision to scrap its three-year cap on the Swiss franc relative to the euro, which sent the currency soaring.

Ironically, in a country with an export-reliant economy, the move may prove positive for Sunrise. According to CEO Libor Voncina, most of Sunrise's revenues are in the stronger Swiss franc while its costs are mainly in foreign currencies that will now be cheaper.

Sunrise, which has possibly the most famous Swiss personality as its ambassador - tennis star Roger Federer - plans to use the funds to cut debt and exploit new growth opportunities.

"The primary proceeds from the IPO will allow the company to substantially strengthen its balance sheet and exploit future growth opportunities," Voncina said.

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That, realistically, simply means attacking market leader Swisscom to grab more of the market share.

"Growth for Sunrise will mainly come from market share [in Switzerland] and the market of data users," said Ovum's Talmesio.

Sunrise and Orange had in the past planned to merge, but the union was blocked by Swiss regulators on the grounds that it would weaken competition. So in 2010, CVC stepped in and bought Sunrise from the Danish telecommunications company TDC for CHF 3.3bn (€3bn). With the flotation, CVC's holding will fall to about 30 percent of the company.

Although it has been under foreign ownership most of its short life, Sunrise regards itself as totally Swiss by nature.

"We are a Swiss company and have no intentions for adventures abroad," Sunrise's CFO André Krausé said.

It's a position Ovum's Talmesio agrees with. "With the exception of some services that are still very niche, there is no real advantage in being a global multi-country player compared to a single-country operator. Of course scale saves some money but Sunrise can remain nimble and operate in a single market."

Sunrise is predominantly a mobile player, with 2.49 million mobile users and broadband, landline, and TV making up the rest of its 3.3 million customers. It has about a 27 percent share of the mobile market, less than half that of Swisscom, and nine percent of the fixed broadband market.

It has invested CHF 1bn (€935m) in its network over the last three years and plans to invest CHF 240m each year in addition. The company claims that speeds of 100Mbps are available for "practically the entire population". It is, like its rivals, in the testing phase for LTE Advanced, which should offer a speed bump of up to 300 Mbps.

In addition, its fibre broadband network - which runs for 10,841km - operates across five Swiss cities.

Orange

The takeover of Switzerland's third-placed mobile operator by French telecoms tycoon Xavier Niel is still going through regulatory processes. The Swiss Federal Communications Commission (ComCom) just approved the transfer of mobile radio licences last week.

Orange meanwhile is working on bolstering its presence. It has some way to go: according to the latest Connect magazine test on Swiss mobile network performance, while all three networks were rated as "very good", it was a virtual clean sweep in most categories for Swisscom, which was rated best network for the sixth year in a row. There were consolation victories for Sunrise as best for call setup speed, while Orange just edged its rivals in the best voice and data connections in trains category.

Although it's early days, there are some signs of the Niel effect coming in to force.

Orange's existing mobile network with coverage of 84 percent of the population is being gradually upgraded from 4G (LTE) to 4G+ (LTE Advanced), increasing mobile broadband speeds from 150Mbps to 300Mbps. It starts with Berne, with a rollout to major Swiss cities during 2015.

The difference to the other telecoms' providers is that 4G+ will be available to all - contract and prepay customers - at no extra cost.

Not quite the full-out price war that marked Niel 's arrival in the French market, but it's unlikely the same dramatic tactics will work in Switzerland, particularly given the relatively high acquisition cost of Orange.

"The starting point in Switzerland is considerably different compared to that in France and there is less room to manoeuvre for Niel in Switzerland," said Talmesio.

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