Predicting 5G CAPEX

If you ever want a bad headache, spend a few hours researching predictions about the future trajectory of capital spending by the big players in the telecom industry. It’s a topic worth following since the big ISPs all said that eliminating net neutrality and other regulation would unleash them to spend lavishly on new networks.

I was looking through projections over the past year that were forecasting capital spending for 2019. My main motivation in looking at these projections was to see if the big companies are actually planning on spending money yet on 5G. I figured the best way to get past all of the 5G hype is to follow the advice from the movie All the President’s Men, and “Follow the money”.

I started by looking at projections from the beginning of 2018. The headlines at that time centered around the big benefits to the industry from the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed in December 2017. That legislation created an annual benefit to AT&T of $2.2 billion and a benefit to Verizon of $4 billion annually. At the beginning of 2018 industry analysts predicted the companies would roll those savings into increased capital spending. However, like with most big corporations those savings were not rolled back into the business.

There were rosy predictions at the start of last year about 2018 and 2019 capital spending. For example, the analysts at Deutsche Bank Research said in February 2018 that capital spending by the wireless carriers would increase by 14% in 2018 and even more into the future. It’s not hard to understand the enthusiasm of the analysts because the carriers were fueling this story. Early in 2018 Verizon said they would be investing $35 billion in 5G and AT&T said they would invest $40 billion.

This enthusiasm was fueled all last year by promises from AT&T and Verizon to roll out 5G by the end of 2018. In June the analysts at Oppenheimer raised forecasts of capital spending for 2019 by $18 billion by Verizon and $25 billion for AT&T. However, at the end of last year we saw the 5G announcements had been nothing but hype when AT&T announced an imaginary 5G product and Verizon installed fixed wireless in a few hundred homes.

As recently as the fourth quarter of last year a number of analysts were still predicting greater capital spending for wireless this year compared to 2018. For example, MoffettNathanson LLC predicted 2019 capital spending would be up 3.3% in 2019. Most other analysts made similar projections.

As the books closed for 2018 it became obvious that the big wireless companies hadn’t spent nearly as much as expected for the year. For example, Verizon actual spending was $1.5 billion less than their own initial projections. AT&T came in $3 billion less than projected. When real spending materializes you start to understand the complexity of these budgets. For example, AT&T said that part of the reason for lower capital spending was due to delays in the deployment of FirstNet, the nationwide public safety network. I sit here wondering why FirstNet was even included in their capital budget since it’s not being funded from AT&T’s own revenues, but 100% by taxpayers.

By the time I got to looking at 2019 the picture gets incredibly muddled. There are still those predicting 2% to 3% more capital spending for 2019. But we also see the big carriers admitting to their investors that there will be little spending on 5G this year. This first big capital expenditure in 5G will be for the core electronics for 5G cell sites called the RAN. It doesn’t look like there will be a 5G RAN available for a few more years. Both cellular carriers admit that they are not spending much on 4G LTE infrastructure other than working on cell site densification in urban areas through the deployment of small cell sites aimed at relieving pressure on the big tower cell sites.

I’ll be honest that all I got out of this reading was the headache because I still have no idea about how much money these big carriers will spend this year. This is probably not abnormal in an industry under so much flux and I would imagine there are still decisions being made inside these companies every day that will change capital spending even in this year. The one thing I came away with was a clear picture that there will be very little spending in 2019 on 5G, which means that the announcements of the carriers to have 5G cellular products by 2020 are clearly still hype.

But there are still those in the industry with rosy predictions. The research firm IDC predicts that spending on 5G core equipment will increase worldwide from $500 million this year to $26 billion per year in 2022. Ericsson is predicting that 5G will account for 50% of mobile subscriptions in the US by 2023 along with a worldwide penetration at 20% that year. That seems to be in conflict with Cisco which recently predicted worldwide 5G penetration of 3% by the end of 2022. I have no idea which of these predictions is right, but I now know that we can’t put any faith in predictions about 5G spending or deployment, so perhaps all of this reading was not in vain.