Ericsson expects challenges in the mobile-network industry to continue this year as customers remain cautious about spending and as the investment pace normalizes in its key Indian market. The Swedish telecommunications-equipment company said sales in its network equipment unit fell 23% in the fourth quarter, with sales momentum in India slowing, while North America had a 50% drop in sales.
Ericsson, the world’s biggest western vendor of 5G network equipment, had a 10% drop in sales on a constant-currency basis in 2023, despite a renewed focus on cost cutting. Reported revenues fell 3%, to 263.4 billion Swedish kronor (US$25.2 billion), and Ericsson’s closely monitored gross margin shrank from 41.7% to 38.6%. After impairment charges affecting Vonage, the VoIP software company Ericsson bought for $6.2 billion in July 2022, the Swedish vendor went from a SEK19.1 billion ($1.8 billion) net profit the year before to a SEK26.1 billion ($2.5 billion) loss.
Ericsson saw a shift in its business mix through 2023 from higher-margin 5G work in early-mover markets like North America to lower-margin developing markets such as India. This helped keep sales levels propped up but has held margins back.
The rapid phase of 5G deployments in India is now moderating, with sales in the country growing by 14% on year, but declining by almost 40% compared with the third quarter.
“A reduction in capex investments in India was expected in the beginning of 2024 but occurred earlier than anticipated,” Ericsson said in a statement.
“It is important to note that, looking historically, large declines in the mobile network market are followed by a rebound,” said Börje Ekholm, Ericsson’s CEO, on his usual quarterly call with analysts. “Operators can sweat the assets up to a point but eventually will need to invest to manage the data traffic growth, cost, energy usage and, of course, network quality, and give the customer the experience that the customer demands.”
“As we look ahead, 2024 will be a difficult year and market conditions will prevail, and so we currently expect the market outside China to further decline as our customers remain cautious and the investment pace normalizes in India,” said Ekholm. A speedy rollout of 5G in the huge Asian country slowed down massively in the final quarter, explaining why Ericsson’s network sales in India fell sequentially by as much as 40%.
Ericsson reported a net profit attributable to shareholders of 3.39 billion Swedish kronor ($324 million) compared with SEK6.07 billion a year earlier, as sales fell 16% to SEK71.88 billion. Analysts polled by FactSet had expected a net profit of SEK3.29 billion on sales of SEK76.64 billion.
The earnings before interest, tax and amortization margin excluding restructuring charges stood at 11.4%, beating company guidance of around 10%. The Swedish company expects the overall network market to shrink in 2024 and the near-term outlook remains uncertain, mainly due to the decline in India as well as generally cautious customer investments.
However, Ericsson expects to gain market share in North America toward the latter part of 2024 thanks to its recent $14B Open RAN contract win from AT&T. That deal has been heavily promoted by Ericsson and AT&T as an “open RAN” affair. Disaggregated network equipment with “open interfaces”would permit AT&T to pair Ericsson Open RAN gear with that from other Open RAN hardware vendors. Although Fujitsu has been named as another supplier of Open RAN radios, the contract will clearly make AT&T more dependent on Ericsson than it is today.
This author doesn’t believe the reported $14B deal will be totally realized, because AT&T will not deploy much, if any, Open RAN this year.
Ericsson also remains hopeful that Vonage can bring about a recovery. Along with other parts of the industry, it has been working to standardize the application programming interfaces (APIs) between the 5G network and the apps it would support. The idea is that a software developer would be able to write better 5G apps after paying for access to the Vonage platform where these network features are exposed. Money would trickle down to operators and they, in turn, would be more inclined to invest in network upgrades.
“In our view, the current investment levels are unsustainably low for many operators,” Chief Executive Borje Ekholm said. “We are therefore confident that a market recovery should materialize. However, the timing of market recovery is ultimately in the hands of our customers.”
PHOTO: LARS SCHRODER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES