The latest GSMA Intelligence report on 5G estimates that U.S. operators will spend about $100 billion (excluding spectrum acquisitions) between 2018 and 2020 on upgrading their LTE networks and investing in 5G.
That equates to about $33 billion per year and accounts for about 13 percent of mobile revenue per year during that time frame. However, expansion of 5G to a larger footprint, especially in rural areas, could require more capex than what is forecast in 2020, the group said.
GSMA Intelligence notes that many factors will impact this spending, including the type of 5G the operator decides to deploy (i.e., will it be non-standalone, standalone, or a combination of both) what spectrum bands it will use (low-, mid-, or high-band spectrum), how much fiber infrastructure is available, and the underlying 4G LTE network.
The research group also said that in the U.S., operators have already invested heavily during the past three years to acquire spectrum, including spending around $60 billion for two major spectrum auctions: $41 billion for the AWS-3 auction that ended in 2015 and $19 billion for the 600 MHz auction that ended last year.
The firm also noted that operators will need to continue to manage three generations of network technology (3G, 4G, and 5G) for the time being until voice services are completely migrated to voice over LTE (VoLTE) and eventually 5G New Radio.
The GSMA Intelligence group isn’t the only one closely watching U.S. operator capex spending. BTIG Research, the research arm of the BTIG investment firm, said in a blog post today from analyst Walter Piecyk that it believes that wireless network investments are increasing in the U.S. and that tower operators are likely to benefit from this investment.
In particular, BTIG said that AT&T will likely increase its investments as it works on its FirstNet public safety network. The investment research firm also said that there are indications that Sprint is also increasing its investment particularly as it focuses on its massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antennas.
Interestingly, BTIG also said that it believes there is a “greater than 50 percent” chance that a fifth national wireless network will emerge within the next five years. That mystery network will result in an opportunity for network vendors.