The capital expenditures of the four national carriers in the United States are expected to rise as much as ten-percent over the course of this year, Barclays analysts wrote to investors earlier this week, without attributing the major increase to 5G. While Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint are expected to spend in the ballpark of $50 billion combined in 2018, a significant portion of their investments is expected to be aimed at improving their 4G LTE offerings. 5G won’t make “one iota of difference” in the near future, T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said earlier this month, whereas Crown Castle Chief Executive Officer Jay Brown recently asserted the overall state of 5G research and development is still highly theoretical.
With both the fastest-growing wireless carrier and one of the largest tower companies in the country downplaying the current excitement surrounding 5G deployment, some industry watchers remain careful about predicting massive 5G-driven capex increases in 2018. The latest financial reports of the nation’s largest mobile service providers all mentioned 5G in the context of planned expenditures but provided little details on the matter, which is in line with recent estimates suggesting large-scale 5G deployment won’t start before 2019. The fifth generation of mobile networks is still nearing commercialization at a steadily accelerating pace, with the first implementable 5G standard being completed in late December as the 3GPP’s Release 15. The specification is already being used by a long list of wireless carriers and network equipment manufacturers as part of various trials and should also serve as the basis for AT&T’s experimental 5G network the company vowed to introduce in a dozen U.S. cities by late 2018.
AT&T and Sprint are expected to be the main driving forces behind the 2018 wireless capex increase, according to Barclays. Verizon and T-Mobile are both projecting their spending to remain largely unchanged over the course of this year, as indicated by their Q4 2017 financial reports. All four carriers will likely continue investing in network densification in order to improve their existing offerings, with such efforts also being indirectly attributable to 5G that will require a much higher volume of (small) cell sites in order to offer reliable coverage, especially in the context of implementations relying on the millimeter-wave spectrum.
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