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Quarter-End Insights

Tech & Telecom: Big Data Takes Many Forms, so Choose Wisely

As enterprises allocate spending toward data analytics, we see increasing complexity leading to opportunities for legacy technology providers and services firms.

  • There are pockets of undervalued, albeit higher-uncertainty, stocks in the international telecom space, but in aggregate global telecom is fairly valued, while the technology sector appears slightly overvalued.
  • While "pure play" data analytics companies are modestly overvalued, several legacy technology companies will benefit from the increasing complexity of "big data" solutions.
  • Companies with unique customer data and broad reach will allow digital advertisers to better target users with display advertising, but the investment opportunity has greater downside than upside at today's levels.
  • The FCC's tough stand on competition has deflated wireless valuations and cast some doubt over the pending acquisitions of  DirecTV and  Time Warner Cable . The best telecom opportunities remain overseas, however, as opportunities still exist in both Europe and Asia


We have consistently viewed the technology sector either as fairly valued or slightly overvalued for the past 18 months or so, and now the communication services sector (trading at a modest premium to its fair value) has caught up. We advise investors to be selective, though there are pockets of value for the patient. Specifically, a few domestic cell tower players and the some international telecom firms offer more appealing valuations. 

In the table below, we highlight a few of our top picks, including two from the telecom sector. Taking a step back, with these two sectors trading at or above fair value, we would prefer a wider margin of safety and are quick to gravitate toward firms with established economic moats, which might be in a better relative position to withstand near-term revenue and operating margin volatility.

Data Analytics
As enterprises allocate spending toward data analytics, we see increasing complexity leading to opportunities for legacy technology providers and services firms. The quantity of data has exploded, resulting from new sources such as machine data, quantifiable sensors, Web logs, and Web applications.

We continue to believe that this global secular theme will play out, with new software technologies, cheaper memory, and cheaper processing allowing for broader application of statistical models to drive decision-making. We view this evolution as necessary, since "old" technologies (such as traditional data warehousing) are not able to tackle many of these new opportunities in cost-effective ways.

However, despite this innovation, legacy systems for organizing and analyzing operational data are unlikely to be replaced. This is not a winner-take-all scenario, and instead we see many of the entrenched tech conglomerates willing to cannibalize some of their product portfolios and invest in leading-edge products and services in order to drive switching costs higher and generate incremental revenue.

Digital Advertising
Advertisers are increasingly driven by ROI, and spending continues to gravitate toward ad platforms that can slice up audiences and be priced in a granular way, frequently in real time. These increased appetites for measurability and quantification of an ad's effectiveness will lead to a rapid expansion in programmatic advertising sold by algorithms instead of salespeople. As Internet companies pursue growth, we expect increased M&A activity and geographical expansion, particularly beyond the mature markets of the United States and the United Kingdom. We also anticipate that companies will invest heavily in optimizing their advertising products and content for mobile devices as the end market continues to evolve.

The success and growth of social media platforms demonstrate that display, not search engine advertising, is the fastest form of digital advertising growth. Regardless of the ad format, advertisers are able to spend with accountability and measurability. We believe an increasing amount of display advertising will be sold programmatically, reinforcing what we believe to be key assets in forming and/or protecting an economic moat. First, companies that have unique customer insights will be able to sell more advertising, in our view. Second, firms that can provide superior execution and liquidity for programmatic advertising will see solid growth, although the sustainability of this growth is not likely to be obvious or defensible. The Internet market is maturing in developed markets due to increased broadband and smartphone penetration as well as advanced digital advertising markets. We expect companies to look beyond the U.S. and U.K. for growth, both organically and inorganically.

The U.S. telecom industry remains at a unique point in history, with consolidation, regulatory policy, and technology converging. The FCC has forcefully taken the position that existing competition needs protection, effectively killing any hope that  Sprint and  T-Mobile (TMUS) would merge to better compete with giants  AT&T (T) and  Verizon (VZ). This action provides additional intrigue as regulators consider the implications of significantly greater media concentration that the proposed acquisitions of DirecTV and Time Warner Cable would present.

At the same time, the debate surrounding the "open Internet," or "net neutrality," has taken on greater importance, with the FCC currently combing through thousands of public responses on the issue as it prepared to propose new rules. As these issues are debated in Congress and the court of public opinion, there is a risk that the FCC or the Justice Department puts a hold on consolidation. Ultimately, we don't expect a major change to the competitive positioning of firms within the industry in the near term. Of particular concern, we expect Sprint and T-Mobile to struggle to generate acceptable profitability, placing a significant strain on their finances as they attempt to purchase additional wireless spectrum at upcoming auctions.  

Consolidation is also occurring in Europe, cross-border.  Vodafone (VOD) recently bought Ono, the largest cable operator in Spain, while the largest cable operator in France is looking to acquire the second-largest phone company in the country. Importantly, the E.U. regulators have approved Telefonica Deutschland's purchase of  KPN's KPN German subsidiary, E-Plus. We anticipate this deal will close before the end of the year, and discussions are ongoing regarding the potential acquisition of Yoigo in Spain and possible consolidation in Italy.

Additionally, the European operators' connections to Brazil are influencing M&A there with  Telefonica (TEF) close to an agreement with  Vivendi (VIVHY) on the purchase of GVT. Also,  America Movil (AMX) and Oi are discussing a bid for  Telecom Italia's (TI) Brazilian operation, TIM Brasil. We anticipate additional M&A activity to continue around the world, which has pushed up the prices of many stocks. However, there are still pockets of value across the global telecom space. Most come with baggage, either in the form of lagging sales growth or higher legacy costs, so we encourage investors to be highly selective.

Top Tech & Telecom Sector Picks

Star Rating Fair Value
Fair Value
American Tower $111.00 Narrow Medium $77.70
Cognizant Technology $55.00 Narrow Medium $38.50
Orange $18.00 Narrow High $10.80
Data as of 09-24-2014

 American Tower (AMT)
Over the past few years, American Tower has grown into the biggest and most economically efficient firm in a very attractive industry, and we think secular tailwinds are set to continue. The insatiable demand for smartphone growth continues to ensure the increasing burden on wireless carrier networks won't be easing anytime soon. Global mobile data traffic is projected to increase 13-fold over the next five years, with mobile network connection speeds rising sevenfold. Smartphones represent less than one third of global handsets in use, and we think this percentage could rise to roughly 50% by 2017. As all the major U.S. carriers prepare for LTE, the data usage trajectory should skyrocket. A 4G connection generates nearly 30 times more traffic than an average non-4G connection.

 Cognizant Technology (CTSH)
Cognizant is a top 25 player in the $1 trillion global IT Services industry and a company which has grown its top line at a 25% annualized rate over the past five years. The firm employs a differentiated "Two-In-A-Box" operating model whereby a senior leader in the U.S. manages the client relationship while another senior manager oversees service delivery from India--this has built greater client engagement and enduring relationships. We think the company is well positioned to participate in emerging technologies, such as social, mobile, analytics, and cloud, which will drive enterprise IT spending over the next few years. Recent weakness can in part be attributed to some deals taking longer than expected to close and leadership change at certain North American and U.K.-based clients, but we don't view these headwinds as structural in nature.

 Orange (ORAN)
Orange is the largest telecom operator in France (and still has a narrow moat) but has struggled since Iliad entered the wireless telephone market at the beginning of 2012, causing a giant price war. The market is now calming down, and although we expect revenue will continue to decline for several years, we anticipate the rate of decline will slow. Importantly, France accounts for only about half of the firm's revenue and EBITDA. The company also has significant operations in Spain (which will be enhanced by its proposed acquisition of Jazztel, though at a high cost) and Poland, and operates in 18 countries in the Middle East or Africa, which are some of the fastest-growing countries in the world. We don't think these operations are fully appreciated by the market. We project that with the lower revenue declines in France and growth in its emerging-markets portfolio, Orange can return to revenue growth by 2017.

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Peter Wahlstrom does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.