UK telecom market sees its first quaterly net loss of mobile customers

­In Q1 09, the UK mobile market saw its first quarterly net loss of customers for three years. The total customer base contracted by 0.56m to finish the quarter on 75.59m, equivalent to a penetration rate of 123.8%. The proportionate annual growth rate fell to 3.9% from 4.9% a year earlier, and in fact this was the second lowest rate ever seen in the UK market, the lowest being the 3.1% recorded in 2006. This may not be indicative of a long-term decline in growth, however. The Q4 06 figure of 3.1% was followed by eight quarters in which annual growth hovered around 5%, and the Q1 09 rate may prove to be a similar blip.

The greatest loss in Q1 09 was suffered by Vodafone, which shed 0.45m customers to take its total to 18.72m. A year earlier Vodafone was the UK's market leader (if we exclude O2's customers through its Tesco MVNO), but at the end of Q1 09 it was 0.86m adrift of O2. Although its second place remains secure, this was the biggest quarterly decline in customers Vodafone has ever seen. On an annual basis, it added just 0.18m.

However, T-Mobile's annual performance was even worse, a 0.26m loss taking its total customer base back under 10m for the second time, with an end-quarter figure of 9.99m. Its Q1 09 loss stood at 0.21m. Virgin, which operates as an MVNO on T-Mobile's network, was the only other major operator to lose customers in Q1 09, a 94.3k decline taking its base to 4.02m. This was its fifth successive quarterly decline, and on an annual basis it lost 0.41m customers. The other operators may not have lost customers, but they did not perform well. O2 top-scored with a gain of just 110.6k, which took its total base to 19.58m. Tesco added around 40k to break the 2m barrier, Orange was up 32k to 16.44m and Hutchison gained half this number to finish on 4.43m.

The ARPU figures provided no respite from this somewhat gloomy picture. O2 was down 19.6% to €24.20 and T-Mobile down 19.2% to €21, although the strengthening of the Euro had a part to play here. Vodafone was also down, losing 3.7% to record £20.80, whilst Orange was up 1.1% to £22.58, although its rolling annual average figures obscure the real quarterly trend.

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