Where Have You Gone 5G? Midband spectrum, FWA, 2024 decline in CAPEX and RAN revenue

The “5G Train Wreck” we predicted five years ago has come to pass.  With the possible exception of China and South Korea, 5G has been an unmitigated failure- for carriers, network equipment companies, and subscribers/customers. And there haven’t been any significant performance advantages over 4G. I’ve had a 5G Samsung phone for almost 2 years and I don’t notice any difference in performance from my previous 4G Samsung phone.

Jennifer Fritzsche, managing director at investment bank Greenhill & Company wrote on January 16th:“As carriers pulled back on capex and focused on Free Cash Flow, “5G” mentions saw a precipitous decline on almost every carrier earnings call last year.”  However, she is somewhat optimistic for 2024, “2024 will be the year when carriers will need to justify the spectrum spend they paid billions of dollars for only a few short years ago.  Although the 5G consumer killer app may already be here (FWA [1.]), the key trend to watch is the development of enterprise solutions for 5G.  If carriers can tap into their deep enterprise relationships to play ball here – this 5G thing becomes a lot more real.”

Note 1.  It’s quite surprising that Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) has emerged as the most popular 5G deployment, especially from T-Mobile US and Verizon. That’s because it was NOT one of the three 5G use cases defined by ITU-R (Enhanced Mobile Broadband, Machine to Machine Communications and URLLC).

Midband spectrum is a key element supporting the fixed wireless access (FWA) services from all of the big US wireless network operators. FWA promises to supplant wired Internet connections inside homes and offices with 5G connections.  Yet network operators aren’t boasting about their midband network buildouts like they were a few years ago. Instead, they’re talking about plans to reduce spending (CAPEX) on their networks in order to boost revenues.

“We’ve been telling you [in 2024] our capital intensity was going to tail off from kind of the peak levels we’ve been at the last couple of years,” AT&T CEO John Stankey said at a recent UBS investor conference. “I expect that’s going to be the case,” he added.  AT&T officials have said the company will spend between $21 billion and $22 billion on capital expenses (capex) during 2024, down from $24 billion in 2023. Other operators are signaling similar drawdowns.

“We’ve spent a lot of money over the past five years, a lot of money building the world’s best 5G plant, and it’s time to be able to enjoy having that in the ground and be able to realize the benefits of that,” Sievert, T-Mobile’s CEO, explained.

Financial analysts at Evercore recently wrote that they expect U.S. capex to decline “as the 5G investment cycle tapers off. There should not be another capex cycle for the next few years adding some comfort to the FCF [free cash flow] outlook in a world of fundamental uncertainty.”

RAN revenue continues to decline Year-over-Year.  Dell’Oro’s preliminary findings from 1Q23-3Q23 data reveal that the North America RAN market is declining at a much steeper rate than anticipated. Interestingly, the capex decline in the U.S. aligns with operators’ communications, but the North America wireless RAN/capex ratio is on track to reach the sub-15% range, highlighting the disconnect lies not in capex decline but in the proportion allocated to the RAN.  Yet RAN excluding North America is actually coming in stronger than what we outlined going into 2023, in part because of the incredible 5G ascent in India. Putting things together, it appears that the surprise on the downside in the U.S. is more than enough to offset the stronger-than expected showing in the Asia Pacific region.

Looking ahead, Dell’Oro is forecasting global RAN to record a second consecutive year of RAN contractions in 2024, though the pace of the decline should be more moderate. The regional dynamics will change as the pendulum swings towards the negative in India. Wireless capex in the US is still on track to decline. Yet we are forecasting the North America RAN market to grow, implying a greater portion of the capex will be allocated towards the RAN segment in 2024

Dell’Oro’s Stefan Pongratz concludes:

In summary, 2024 is unlikely to emerge as the most exhilarating year from a broader RAN revenue growth perspective. Even so, within the market, there will be pockets undergoing significant changes. While some of the upcoming growth areas will remain relatively small, 2024 is poised to be an important transition year for various wireless sub-segments. As always, the competitive RAN landscape will continue to be fierce. Despite the anticipated decline in certain aspects of the RAN market, it should be an eventful year.





Dell’Oro: RAN revenues declined sharply in 2023 and remain challenging in 2024

U.S. Network Operators and Equipment Companies Agree: 5G CAPEX slowing more than expected

MTN Consulting: Generative AI hype grips telecom industry; telco CAPEX decreases while vendor revenue plummets

U.S. 5G spending slowdown continues; RAN revenues set to decline for years!


Dell’Oro: Telecom Capex Growth to Slow in calendar years 2022-2024






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