To a growing extent, capital investment in the global telecom business is mobile network investment. Mobile share of total capex will grow from 56 percent in 2011 to 62 per cent in 2017, according to Ovum.

Last year also might have been a bit of an anomoly for global telecom revenue and capital investment, if Ovum forecasts prove accurate.

Capital investment grew 12 percent in 2011 while revenues grew seven percent in 2011, with capex reaching $314 billion and revenues nearly $2 trillion.

To the extent that capex has to bear a close relationship to revenues, lower long-term revenues would imply lower capex as well.

That 12-percent rate of investment is out of step with capital spending in the 2004 to 2010 period, which was about 6.5 percent, and far higher than the 3.1 percent rate Ovum expects for the 2010 to 2017 period.

It appears 2011 revenues were a bit unusual. On a global basis, service provider revenues will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 2.9 percent over the 2010-2017 period, down from the historic CAGR of 6.3 percent achieved in 2004-2010, according to analysts at Ovum.

The Ovum forecast, though, does not mean networks will be unable to keep pace with capacity or quality demands.

Ovum argues that there are many ways to stretch a given amount of capital investment, including network sharing, software-based network elements and features, pay-as-you-grow contractual terms, joint procurement, mergers, acquisitions and outsourcing.

In fact, one might argue that service providers have been substituting operational expense for capital investment for some time. In 2011, global service providers spent about $71 billion on outsourcing.

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