AT&T Hints at Possible Decline in Capex in 2020

Mike Dano
News Analysis
Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies
3/13/2019



AT&T hasn't said how much it expects to spend on capital expenditure next year. But when questioned on the topic, the company's CFO offered a lot of reasons why the figure might fall.

Specifically, AT&T's CFO John Stephens said that several trends are conspiring to potentially lower AT&T's capex. He pointed to the company's move to network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), which are technologies geared toward replacing expensive, proprietary hardware components with less expensive, software-powered equivalents that run on commodity computing equipment. Stephens said that more than half of AT&T's network functions have been virtualized, and that the company remains on track to reach its goal of virtualizing fully 75% of its network functions by 2020.

"All of this leads to an efficiency opportunity on a going forward basis," he said.

Further, Stephens pointed to AT&T's ongoing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) buildout, which he said will be largely finished this summer when the company reaches its FCC-mandated goal of 14 million locations. Although AT&T has said it may continue to add fiber in select locations, Stephens explained that reaching the 14 million-location goal will allow the operator to "manage capital appropriately."

And in Mexico, Stephens said that AT&T now covers 100 million POPs with LTE, marking a major milestone in the company's adventures south of the border.

Finally, Stephens explained that, in the US, AT&T is ahead of pace on its FirstNet network buildout, having covered 40% of the nation with FirstNet services at the end of 2018. Stephens said AT&T's 700MHz FirstNet network buildout will continue through next year, but that the operator is capitalizing on the effort by concurrently adding support for its AWS-3 and WCS spectrum while building out FirstNet's 700MHz spectrum for public safety users.


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"All of this gives us opportunities," Stephens said, alluding to the fact that most of AT&T's major network construction projects will be largely finished by next year.

Stephens made his comments during an appearance at an investor relations event hosted by Deutsche Bank. Although he didn't offer a specific number when questioned about AT&T's capex for 2020, he didn't disagree with the moderator's position that AT&T may have a "downward bias" on its 2020 capex figure.

Stephens' interest in lowering AT&T's capex could tie into his interest in paying down AT&T's massive debt load from its DirecTV and Time Warner acquisitions.

The amount of money AT&T spends on its network every year is a bellwether indication for the company's equipment vendors and the wider telecommunications industry in general. For example, AT&T and virtually every other wireless network operator boosted their capex at the dawn of 4G in order to add LTE support across their respective coverage footprints. But it doesn't appear that 5G has resulted in much of a capex bump, at least not yet. AT&T plans to spend around $23 billion, excluding $1 billion in FirstNet reimbursements, during 2019 on its network. Last year AT&T spent $21.3 billion and in 2017 it spent $21.6 billion. AT&T launched mobile 5G on its 39GHz spectrum in "parts" of a dozen cities last year, and plans to expand that to additional cities this year.

Stephens said that, by 2020, AT&T would cover 200 million POPs with 5G. When questioned whether he meant "5G E," Stephens said that, no, he was talking about "5G."

AT&T, of course, has faced withering criticism over its decision to label its LTE Advanced services like carrier aggregation and 256 QAM as "5G E." The operator is using the "5G+" label for its transmissions in millimeter-wave spectrum using the 5G NR radio standard.

AT&T isn't the only operator that appears to be abstaining from a major increase in its network spending. For example, Verizon's planned capex for 2019 is between $17 and $18 billion, up slightly from the $16.7 billion Verizon spent on its network in 2018. Verizon executives have argued that the company has been building toward a 5G network for years now, efforts that have been spread out across Verizon's capital expenses during the past few years.

AT&T's CFO also talked about the provider's declining handset sales. Click here for that story.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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