The telecommunication sector is made up of companies that make communication possible on a global scale, whether it is through the phone or the Internet, through airwaves or cables, through wires or wirelessly. These companies created the infrastructure that allows data in words, voice, audio, or video to be sent anywhere in the world. The largest companies in the sector are telephone (both wired and wireless) operators, satellite companies, cable companies, and Internet service providers.

Not long ago, the telecommunications sector consisted of a club of big national and regional operators. Since the early 2000s, the industry has been swept up in rapid deregulation and innovation. In many countries around the world, government monopolies are now privatized and they face a plethora of new competitors. Traditional markets have been turned upside down, as the growth in mobile services outpaces the fixed-line and the Internet starts to replace voice as the staple business.

Key Takeaways

  • The telecommunications sector consists of companies that transmit data in words, voice, audio, or video across the globe.
  • Telecom equipment, telecom services, and wireless communication are the three basic sub-sectors of telecommunications.
  • Telecom has become increasingly focused on video, text, and data, as opposed to voice.
  • Telecommunications companies can appeal to both growth- and income-oriented investors.
  • Although individual stocks can be quite volatile, the telecom sector overall has exhibited stable long-term growth, as telecommunications has become an increasingly important basic industry, impervious to business cycles.
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Evolution of the Telecommunications Sector

The telecommunications industry began in the 1830s, with the invention of the telegraph, the first mechanical communications device. It shortened communication from days to hours—much as modern mobile technology has shortened the time span of sending large amounts of data from hours to seconds. The industry broadened with each new invention: the telephone, radio, television, computer, mobile device. These technological advances changed how people live and do business.

At one time, telecommunications required physical wires connecting homes and businesses. In contemporary society, technology has gone mobile. Now, wireless digital technology is becoming the primary form of communication.

The sector's structure has also changed from a few large players to a more decentralized system with decreased regulation and barriers to entry. Major public corporations act as the service providers, while smaller companies sell and service the equipment, such as routers, switches, and infrastructure, which enable this communication.

How Telecommunications Companies Make Money

Plain old telephone calls continue to be the industry's biggest revenue generator, but thanks to advances in network technology, this is changing. Telecom is growing less about voice and increasingly about video, text, and data. High-speed Internet access, which delivers computer-based data applications such as broadband information services and interactive entertainment, is rapidly making its way into homes and businesses around the world. The main broadband telecom technology, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), has ushered in a new era. The fastest growth comes from services delivered over mobile networks.

Of all the customer markets, residential and small business markets are arguably the toughest. With literally hundreds of players in the market, competitors rely heavily on price to slog it out for households' monthly checks; success rests largely on brand name strength and heavy investment in efficient billing systems.

The corporate market, on the other hand, remains the industry's favorite. Big corporate customers, who are concerned mostly about the quality and reliability of their telephone calls and data delivery, are less price-sensitive than residential customers. Large multinationals, for instance, spend heavily on telecom infrastructure to support far-flung operations. They are also happy to pay for premium services like high-security private networks and video conferencing.

Telecom operators also make money by providing network connectivity to other telecom companies that need it, and by wholesaling circuits to heavy network users like Internet service providers and large corporations. Interconnected and wholesale markets favor those players with far-reaching networks.

Key Telecommunications Industry Segments

The telecommunications sector consists of three basic sub-sectors: telecom equipment (the largest), telecom services (next largest), and wireless communication.

The major segments within these sub-sectors include the following:

  • Wireless communications
  • Communications equipment
  • Processing systems and products
  • Long-distance carriers
  • Domestic telecom services
  • Foreign telecom services
  • Diversified communication services

Wireless communications is a very fast-growing sector within telecommunications; more and more communications and computing methods shift to mobile devices and cloud-based technology. This piece of the industry is the anticipated keystone for the continued global expansion of the telecommunications sector.

Looking forward, the sector's biggest challenge is to keep up with people's demand for speedier data connectivity, higher resolution, quicker video streaming, and ample multimedia applications. Meeting people's needs for faster and better connections as they consume and create content requires significant capital expenditures. Companies that can meet these needs thrive.

Investing in Telecommunications

Telecommunications companies are a rarity among equities: Their shares have, at times, exhibited characteristics of both income and growth stocks. For growth investors, the small companies offering wireless services provide the best opportunities for share price appreciation. In contrast, larger companies dealing with equipment and services tend to be havens for conservative, income-focused investors.

Value investors also can find good pickings in the telecommunications sector. The need for telecommunications services, an integral part of the global economy, persists regardless of changes in the business cycle.

However, while the demand is constant, individual suppliers can rise and fall. For several years, a company may enjoy its regulatory privileges (like other utilities, telecom firms often are protected from competition by government mandate), and produce reliable, generous dividend yields (generated by high monthly revenue from its stable customer base). Then, suddenly, technological advances or mergers and acquisitions create uncertainty and leave room for loss—and recovery, with fresh growth.

If a firm hits a slump because of shifts in the industry (like the growing importance of wireless devices), value investors might snap it up, provided its fundamentals remain strong and it proves adept at adapting to change. The telecommunications sector's record in paying and regularly raising dividends makes the waiting period for share prices to improve more enjoyable.

However, all of the three major telecom sectors present some risk to investors. Investors with heavy exposure to telecom can expect stronger-than-average gains during bull markets. But, when a recession or bear market hits, losses from this sector can be severe.

Evaluating Telecommunications Companies

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that size matters in telecom. It is an expensive business; contenders need to be large enough and produce sufficient cash flow to absorb the costs of expanding networks and services that become obsolete seemingly overnight. Transmission systems need to be replaced as frequently as every two years.

Big companies that own extensive networks—especially local networks that stretch directly into customers' homes and businesses—are less reliant on interconnecting with other companies to get calls and data to their final destinations. By contrast, smaller players must pay for interconnection more often in order to finish the job. For little operators hoping to grow big one day, the financial challenges of keeping up with rapid technological change and depreciation of equipment can be monumental.

Earnings can be a tricky issue when analyzing telecom companies. Many companies have little or no earnings to speak of. To gauge a company's value, telecom industry analysts might turn to the price-to-sales ratio (stock price divided by sales). They also look at average revenue per user (ARPU), which offers a useful measure of growth performance, and the churn rate, the rate at which customers leave (presumably for a competitor).

The Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, was passed to stimulate competition in the U.S. telecom sector.

Big Players in Telecommunications

Current industry leaders worldwide can change from year to year. Determining which are the largest depends on whether one looks in terms of total sales numbers or in terms of market capitalization value as well. As of January 2021, the top five telecom companies ranked by market capitalization are as follows:

  1. AT&T (T) is one of the oldest companies in the telephone business and has a market value estimated at approximately $209 billion.
  2. Verizon (VZ), which provides wireless and wireline services in addition to broadband and information services, has a current market capitalization value of approximately $236 billion.
  3. Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp (NTTYY) is a Japan-based holding company that provides telecommunication services and has a market capitalization of $96.8 billion.
  4. Deutsche Telekom AG (DTEGY) is a Germany-based provider of telecommunications and information technology services. The company has a market capitalization of $87.4 billion.
  5. T-Mobile US Inc. (TMUS) is a major U.S. wireless carrier offering various data plans as well as consumer and business telecommunications services. The company has a market capitalization of $159.7 billion.

Telecommunications ETFs

Several exchange-traded funds (ETFs) serve as alternatives to directly investing in individual telecom firms. Telecom ETFs have varying focuses on geography or industry specialization. Some of the most popular include:

  • The Vanguard Communication Services ETF (VOX) is entirely composed of U.S. stocks, ranging from small, regional telecom firms to the big three, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
  • The iShares U.S. Telecommunications ETF (IYZ), similar in holdings to Vanguard's Telecommunication Services ETF, also tracks the largest telecom service companies in the U.S.—T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon—along with a handful of smaller regional service providers.
  • The iShares Global Comm Services ETF (IXP) is more focused internationally, with more than 30% of its holdings in companies headquartered outside the U.S. Notable stocks include some of the top telecom companies: Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone, and SoftBank Corp.

Other popular telecom ETFs include the Fidelity MSCI Communication Services Index (FCOM) and the SPDR S&P Telecom ETF (XTL). 

Telecommunications Sector Outlook

Analysts foresee that product innovation and an increase in mergers and acquisitions will only facilitate the continued growth and success of the telecommunications industry. There are many opportunities for investors, and an increase in investors will only serve to benefit the sector further.

The stability of the sector's growth, even during periods of recession, means that it is considered to be a solid defensive investment while maintaining its appeal to growth investors. Even during uncertain and volatile economic times, the steady demand for voice and data services, along with extensive subscription plans, assures a stable source of revenues for major telecom firms.

Telecommunications has become an increasingly important basic industry, which bodes well for its future prospects and continued growth. The continuing advances in high-speed mobile services and Internet connectivity between devices keep driving innovation and competition within the sector. Much of the industry focus is on providing faster data services, especially in the area of high-resolution video. Essentially, the driving forces are toward quicker and clearer services, increased connectivity, and multi-application usage.

Emerging market economies continue to be a boon for the industry, with the growth rate of the cell phone industry in countries such as China and India pushing the abilities of hardware producers to keep up with the level of demand.

In the U.S., analysts are paying close attention to issues surrounding net neutrality as the demand for data and video services continue to increase well into the future. There is still a strong demand for wireless spectrum rights, not to mention an increasing trend toward consolidation through mergers and acquisitions.

The Bottom Line

Telecommunication companies, like other forms of utilities, often operate with stable customer bases that are protected from competition by government mandate. These pseudo-monopolies allow for consistent dividends. However, the dynamic nature of communications has led to mobile and Internet-based phone systems, undermining the demand for traditional landlines. When this happens, telecommunication companies either suffer or adapt, incorporate the new technology and grow rapidly as consumers buy the latest equipment.