AT&T Cutting Capital Spending

AT&T announced it will be reducing capital spending in 2020. That news is significant for several reasons. AT&T’s capital plans are always big news because they have the largest annual capital budget of the big telcos and cable companies. The AT&T capital budget for 2019 was $23 billion. It’s big news when they are only planning on spending $20 billion in 2020.

It’s worth noting that some of AT&T’s capital spending is not being done with their own money. In 2020 they will be receiving the final installment of $428 million for the sixth year of the CAF II program. AT&T recently announced that they are 75% finished the construction of the FirstNet network for first responders, so the company should be receiving the last 25% of the $6.5 billion of federal funding next year. In future years AT&T will likely be collecting some significant share of the recently announced $9 billion 5G Fund paid out of the Universal Service Fund to bring better cellular service for the most rural parts of the country.

There are ripples throughout the telecom sector when AT&T increases or decreases its capital budget. For example, a significant slash of AT&T spending has a significant impact on the various major electronics vendors that will now have to lower their revenue expectations for 2020. While the whole telecom sector is busy, this still means lower revenues for the major telecom vendors.

This reduction in AT&T spending makes me wonder about the 5G war we are supposedly having with China. If you listen to the carrier-driven rhetoric in Washington DC, you would think that there is an urgent need to spend huge amounts of capital immediately on 5G infrastructure. It was that rhetoric that gave the FCC cover to double the size of the recently announced 5G Fund to $9 billion.

It’s hard to imagine that AT&T would be cutting its capital budget if 5G implementation was truly a national priority and a crisis. The truth about 5G can be seen by how the cellular carrier CEOs communicate with their stockholders – the big carriers are struggling right now to find an immediate business case that justifies huge spending on 5G. It turns out that much of the public isn’t willing to pay more for faster cellular broadband. Every carrier has a list of future benefits from 5G, but there are no applications that will create the quick revenues that would prompt AT&T to keep spending capital at historic levels.

This is not to say that AT&T and the other wireless carriers aren’t spending money on 5G – but AT&T is fitting 5G expansion into its shrinking capital budget. Contrary to everything that the carriers have been telling Washington DC, the carriers are not planning on spending massive amounts of their own money on 5G just yet.

Lower capital spending by AT&T also takes the wind out of the sails of the FCC’s argument that net neutrality was holding back the big ISPs from making capital expenditures. This was the primary reason cited by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for killing net neutrality and Title II regulation. He argued that overregulation was stopping the big carriers from investing, and he’s still making this same argument today to justify his decision. If Chairman Pai was right, we should be seeing AT&T increase capital spending rather than cutting it.

The idea that there is a direct correlation between capital spending and regulation was always fictional. Big ISPs spend money on capital that they think will increase future returns – it’s hard to imagine regulations that would stop the big companies from pursuing good business ideas. AT&T’s capital spending is much more related to what its competitors like Verizon, T-Mobile, and Comcast are doing. When the FCC killed Title II regulation and net neutrality, the agency was removing the last regulations major from a broadband industry that was already barely regulated. It’s hard to think that change had much impact in the Board room or the business development groups at the big ISPs.

It’s worth noting that AT&T has now joined many other big US corporations and is using free cash to buy back its own stock. The company already announced plans to buy back $4 billion of its own stock in the first quarter of 2020 – retiring roughly 100 million shares. I’m sure that decision had some impact on the capital budget. This might mean that AT&T upper management values stock buy-backs to increase earnings per share more than they value capital spending.