The Progressive Policy Institute has just issued its annual Investment Heroes report, and the results are no surprise: once again, broadband providers lead the way. In the top five non-financial companies by estimated U.S. capital expenditure, AT&T is second with $19.2 billion in capex in the U.S., and Verizon is fourth with $14.9 billion. Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft round out the top five – and those companies rely on the networks of broadband operators like AT&T and Verizon (Alphabet does deploy some fiber of its own, with Google Fiber available as an option for about 2.2 million people). Beyond this, Comcast ($10.9 billion) and Charter ($9.1 billion) also rank in the top 10 investors.
Several factors account for this spending. First, broadband operators need to invest at these levels simply to keep up with demand for fast broadband, which is becoming a major foundation of economic growth. It’s another sign of a highly competitive broadband market, with competition among both providers and platforms. Second, operators have already begun deployments for even faster 5G – which will take many tens of billions of dollars to deploy ubiquitously around the country. Third, this shows what I’ve argued for many years: Policies that promote investment will generate investment. That’s why it was so important for the FCC to issue the Restoring Internet Freedom Order repealing Title II rules for broadband, rather than shackling the high-speed internet with monopoly-style regulations.
The good news doesn’t stop there. As PPI writes (citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data), over the course of a decade:
the top industry in terms of growth of capital intensity is communications/broadband, which includes the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in wired and wireless broadband networks. The companies in the communications/broadband industry boosted their capital intensity by 138 percent since 2007, way ahead of the 21 percent increase in capital intensity for the nonfarm business sector as a whole.
Why is this so important? “Rising capital intensity means that each worker has more equipment, structures, and intellectual property available to them. As capital intensity rises, so does productivity.” That massive and continued capital intensity for broadband investment both enables and reflects the massive transformation to a broadband-based economy. Put another way, the transformation could not have happened without that investment, which once again shows the importance of regulatory policies that promote it.
PPI also observes that “many of our Investment Heroes are the target of fierce criticism from policymakers and pundits who underestimate the importance of capital spending to American growth.” The good news? This is perhaps the most easily-fixed challenge to encourage future investments in infrastructure.