Mobile capex is forecast to expand 9% to $111.1 billion this year, driven by renewed investment in RAN infrastructure and in-building wireless access.
Jake Saunders, VP of forecasting at ABI Research, says operators have been reviewing their macro RAN architectures and are opting to beef up their rooftop and street-level small cells as well as distributed base station antenna deployments to better handle the data traffic.
Global capex slowed in 4Q for many mobile operators. Confidence, however, is returning as telcos start to switch over from LTE trials to commercial service in a number of markets, Saunders noted.
A large proportion of the increased capex year-on-year comes from the Asia-Pacific region. China Mobile, for example, is still spending 57% of in annual capex on radio network infrastructure, followed by 18% on its transmission and backbone network.
The North American market is the also buoyant, although overall capex growth will drop to 1.3% over the year. AT&T has been adding capacity to its network and expanding backhaul. Sprint allocates 86% of its capex to investment in data capacity increases and overhauling its legacy network of base stations for multi-mode equipment. Verizon is also investing heavily in its fiber-optic network, LTE coverage, global IP and cloud-based services.
"European capex has been on the back foot relative to North America and Asia Pacific due to weak macroeconomic factors and regulatory issues. However, by 2013 we expect to start to seeing some of the European capex come back as LTE upgrades roll on Europe wide," says Aditya Kaul, ABI practice director for mobile networks.
Overall telco capex growth in Asia is forecast by ABI to drop to 5.7% from 29% last year, hitting $58.8 billion.
Across the region, 63% of the capex budget for 2012 will focus on the construction of radio access network infrastructure, 8% on upgrades and capacity expansions to the core network, and 29% on development of new technologies and new businesses as well as construction of backhaul transmission facilities.