Analyst: Sprint to spend around $500M per year on small cells

Sprint (NYSE: S) is preparing to add small cells to its network to expand the reach of its LTE service, and that effort will most likely cost the carrier around $500 million per year in labor and hardware costs, according to estimates from one Wall Street analyst firm.

"In our view, many Sprint bears have been floating the notion that a build-out of 2.5GHz spectrum on small cells would cause Sprint's capex to rise by a couple of billion dollars per year," wrote analysts with Macquarie Capital in a recent note to investors. "Our recent small cell vendor calls and meetings suggest a far less costly bailout cost."

Macquarie analysts Kevin Smithen and Will Clayton predicted that Sprint would most likely lease around 25 percent of the industry's available small cells from network-buildout companies such as ExteNet Systems, Towerstream and Crown Castle. That would give Sprint roughly 25,000 small-cell sites on its 2.5 GHz spectrum in the top 50 U.S. urban markets by the end of 2018, they said.

Interestingly, the Macquarie analysts estimated that Sprint will spend around $40,000 in equipment and $30,000 in prepayment of around 30 percent of the $100,000 construction costs of small cells, which would result in $280 million in spending on small cells overall in 2015. The analysts said that spending would rise to $357 million in 2018. The analysts arrived at their forecast of $500 million per year by adding in the cost of labor and other fees.

"Sprint sees small cells as a part of our network strategy, but we haven't announced details on deployment in 2015 and beyond," noted Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter in response to questions from FierceWireless on the topic.

Overall, the Macquarie analysts estimated that there are about 40,000 small cells deployed in the United States today and said that Verizon most likely leases around 40 percent of them. The firm estimated that the wireless industry overall will deploy roughly 12,000 new small cells this year, a number that will grow to 24,500 per year in 2020. "We expect the U.S. small cells industry leasing revenue to grow to $1.84bln in 2020 vs. $580m in 2015," they wrote.

"We continue to believe that small cells will be a significant revenue growth driver for the U.S. tower industry for the next decade," the analysts noted.

Indeed, small cells have widely been discussed as a major new vehicle for wireless-network improvement this year and in the years to come. Sprint specifically has said it will use small cells to help improve the coverage of its 2.5 GHz LTE service. But other carriers, including Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T), have pointed to small cells as a tool they plan to use to improve network capacity and download speeds. Indeed, AT&T has started pointing to small cells in its advertising to consumers.

"All told 2015 should be a very promising year for small cells. We continue to see new deployment announcements, such as SpiderCloud's with Verizon Wireless," Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar recently wrote in FierceWireless. "Small cell products continue to become more sophisticated with multi-standard and LTE carrier aggregation support. With that said, applications that enhance, optimize and leverage small cells, especially around the enterprise, still need more development."

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