BT gained 66,000 television customers in the first quarter of 2016, taking its total to 1.46 million in the United Kingdom, where it now has over 9 million broadband homes. Given that only a minority of these have signed up for BT Sport, is the investment in football rights paying off?
The number of net BT TV customer additions was down on the previous two quarters, perhaps indicating a seasonal dependency on football to drive customer acquisition.
Since the launch of BT Sport in August 2013, BT has gained 560,000 television customers.
BT can now claim 5.2 million BT Sport households in the United Kingdom, including wholesale, of which 3.3 million are retail customers through BT, although less than 1.5 million are BT TV subscribers. There are also around 25,000 commercial customers, mainly pubs and clubs.
Gavin Patterson, the chief executive of BT said: “Our BT Sport audiences are up 45 per cent this year following the launch of UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League content.”
Just how many people are watching BT Sport? BT says that 39 matches had peak concurrent viewers of over 1 million, with one peaking at over 2 million. According to BARB, the highest average audience for BT Sport in April was just under 600,000 people for a match between West Ham and Arsenal. Many of them will no doubt have watched BT Sport on Sky or Virgin Media. The rights cost BT around £7.6 million per game. That is over £12 per viewer. So is this really a big win for BT?
The reality is that even almost a billion pounds over three years on the rights to 126 football matches is a comparatively modest investment compared to the cost of upgrading the national broadband infrastructure.
BT has certainly been gaining broadband customers and has reduced the loss of consumer lines. It can point to revenue and earnings growth since the launch of BT Sport, although how much this has to do with football is not entirely clear.
In the first quarter, the number of BT broadband retail customers increased to 9.04 million, including 951,000 EE broadband lines transferred into the business. The total number of organic net additions was 105,000, which is actually lower than the same quarter in the previous two years.
BT was still able to return annual profits of £6.5 billion, with free cash flow of over £3 billion.
BT says that its Openreach and EE businesses will invest around £6 billion between them over the next three years, to extend broadband and mobile coverage.
Although BT is promising to install up to two million premises with fibre, elsewhere it is pinning its hopes on a technology known as G.fast to deliver higher speeds over existing copper connections. However, those in rural regions are unlikely to benefit.
It is unclear how much of the planned investment is over and above the current level of capital expenditure, which was £2.6 billion in the last year. It may not be enough to address the concerns of Ofcom, the communications regulator, and calls for a structural separation of the BT wholesale division, Openreach.
Meanwhile the government appears to be softening its previously proposed universal service obligation for broadband. The prime minister had said he wanted broadband of at least 10 megabits per second to be available to everyone, saying its should be available on a more equal footing to essential services such as electricity and water.
In its latest consultation the government says that broadband access may only be provided on request as “it is unlikely that everyone will want to be connected, even if that option is made available to them, and so we do not believe that an additional broadband rollout programme at this time is proportionate or would represent value for money.”