AT&T promised that it would offer lowband 5G nationwide this summer – the operator said it has already expanded the offering to cover 120 million people in 190 markets – but executives warned that the operator's network spending could slow due to the pandemic.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said Wednesday during his company's quarterly conference call with analysts that the operator's capital expenses could be affected by widespread stay-at-home orders. "It's not just writing checks for capex. There's people out doing things," he said, explaining that some technicians may not be able to visit cell sites due to the spread of COVID-19, while some local officials may not be able to issue cell site construction permits.
"While we have no intention of slowing down on 5G and fiber deployment, the reality is that a lot of it is not in our control," Stephenson said. "So there's probably going to be – relative to the targets we gave you in capex – some downward proclivity on that number, just because of the logistical issues we're running into."
AT&T declined to provide any financial guidance for the remainder of 2020 due to the pandemic. The operator spent roughly $5 billion in capex during its most recent quarter, slightly above some Wall Street estimates.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, AT&T said it would spend around $20 billion on capex throughout 2020, which is way down from the $23 billion it spent in 2019 and the $22 billion that most Wall Street analysts had expected AT&T to spend in 2020.
Verizon, meantime, raised its 2020 capex by $500 million just last month.
At least one Wall Street analyst wondered if AT&T is moving its 5G goalposts slightly for 2020. Jennifer Fritzsche at Wells Fargo pointed out that AT&T executives now promise nationwide lowband 5G by "summer" 2020. In contrast, during previous calls they had said the operator would reach that target by the "middle" of 2020.
AT&T's lowband 5G offering works on its 850MHz spectrum and doesn't provide speeds that are much faster than its 4G LTE network. The operator also operates faster 5G services in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum in parts of roughly 30 cities, but AT&T executives have remained conspicuously silent on that effort.
Verizon, in contrast, has promised to expand its own mmWave 5G network to an additional 30 cities this year.
AT&T's 2020 capex warning, on its network in general and on 5G specifically, has been echoed by some other players in the industry.
"COVID-19 and actions taken by governments to slow down the spread are making our service delivery and supply harder due to lockdowns and travel restrictions in many countries," Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm said earlier on Wednesday. Ericsson sells 4G and 5G equipment to a wide range of global operators, including AT&T. "In addition, while we have seen no material effects on our demand situation, it is prudent to believe that the slowdown in the general economy may lead some operators to delay investment programs."
However, Ekholm said some operators are accelerating their investments in 5G and 4G capacity, pointing to providers in China specifically.
Those comments dovetail with concerns of a 5G slowdown in Europe, largely due to decisions by some officials there to delay 5G spectrum auctions.
"We're having to understand better what will happen as we exit the COVID pandemic in terms of [5G] investment," noted EXFO CEO Philippe Morin in response to a question about how the pandemic might affect US operators' 5G spending, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. He made his comments during his company's recent quarterly conference call with investors. EXFO sells network testing equipment, including for 5G, to mobile network operators globally.
"In certain other countries in Europe, we've seen actually some of the [5G] spectrum auctions to be delayed as the countries have to deal with the virus," Morin continued. "So, we're going to – this is part of the discussions we're having and dialogs we are having with our customers to better understand how – once we emerge out of the crisis, how the investments and where are the priorities are going to be."
Solid performance, but unknown future
AT&T's Stephenson acknowledged that it's "pretty difficult" to predict what's going to happen next as Americans and the rest of the world fight COVID-19. He said the world's smartest economists disagree about what's going to happen in the next quarter, much less the rest of the year.
That said, AT&T's CFO John Stephens said that mobile service remains an essential expense to most people. "The last thing that people don't want to pay is probably their cellphone bill," he said.
Indeed, in its most recent quarter – which suffered from the initial effects of widespread stay-at-home orders – AT&T reported postpaid phone net customer additions of 163,000, ahead of most Wall Street expectations. AT&T executives said the operator's mobility business would help bolster its troubled media operation.
"The bottom line here is that Mobility performed its role admirably in Q1," wrote the analysts at Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson of AT&T's financial performance, in a note to investors Wednesday.
However, AT&T executives warned that if an economic recession deepens wireless users may look to reduce their spending by paying less for their service or holding onto an existing phone longer rather than upgrading to a new phone.