Salt hails strong end to a less than sunny year

The past 12 months have proved challenging for most operators as coronavirus-related measures took hold. Iliad-owned Swiss operator Salt was also forced to contend with the merger of fierce rival Sunrise with Liberty Global-owned UPC Switzerland that created Switzerland's second-largest telecommunications provider after Swisscom.

Despite its best efforts to block the merger through the courts, the transaction was completed in November 2020. Since then, Salt appears to have remained silent about how the merger might affect its business in future. Given that parent company Iliad is owned by French entrepreneur Xavier Niel, it will be interesting to see what the operator might have up its sleeve this year.

Salt had established a joint venture with Sunrise in 2019 called Swiss Open Fiber, with the aim of building an FTTH network covering 1.5 million households over a five-to-seven-year period. A spokesperson for Salt told Light Reading this has now been dissolved but insisted the merger between UPC and Sunrise does not affect its strategy.

"It clarifies the roles. Salt is the challenger in the market, facing two big players. We will continue to pursue our strategy to offer Swiss consumers excellent quality at the best price and further gain market shares."

Hoping for sunnier times

For sure, Salt took something of a battering from COVID-19 last year with revenue adversely affected by a decrease in roaming income because of travel restrictions linked to the pandemic.

However, the operator is in a bullish mood, presenting its fourth-quarter (Q4) and full-year 2020 results with something of a swagger as it claims it has been able to achieve 22 consecutive quarters of positive post-paid net additions in its core brand.

On a like-for-like basis, operating revenue in Q4 was up 0.5% year-on-year, to 235.7 Swiss francs (US$252 million), and EBITDA down by 1.8%, to CHF98.7 million ($105.5 million). In 2020, operating revenue was down 0.2% to CHF914.7 million ($977.8 million), while EBITDA remained stable at CHF413.7 million ($422.3 million)

On a reported basis, including the effect from the sale of its tower assets to Cellnex in 2019 and from COVID-19, operating revenue in 2020 was up 0.9% and EBITDA down 3.4%.

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Salt also placed a strong focus on cash generation throughout the year. Free cash flow in Q4 was CHF38.2 million ($40.8 million), resulting in a free cash flow for 2020 of CHF227.9 million ($243.6 million).

Salt also made reference to the particular difficulties of rolling out 5G networks in Switzerland, with the country's mountainous topology, strict limits on power levels and a general anxiety among the population about the supposed health risks of mobile network equipment.

The operator, which started its rollout in August 2020, said it expects that "with the lifting of the moratoria in cantons and municipalities and the clarification of the regulatory framework," the 5G rollout in Switzerland can be accelerated.

UPDATE: The story has been updated to include remarks from a Salt spokesperson about the dissolution of its joint venture with Sunrise and future strategy.

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— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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