Every company hopes to grow its business in the future. Some just try a little harder than others.
Securing a bright future can be expensive, especially in the tech sector. Let's take a look at three technology businesses that invest more money in finding The Next Big Thing than their peers. I've got my eye on a diverse group: Nationwide telecom Sprint (S), semiconductor giant QUALCOMM (QCOM 0.49%), and online search king Google (GOOG -0.19%) (GOOGL -0.15%).
Sprint: More and better networks
During the last four quarters, Sprint spent $5.6 billion of real cash on capital expenses. Roughly $3.2 billion of this cash cost was necessary to keep the company's existing assets running -- coast-to-coast wireless networks don't run and maintain themselves, you know -- but the remaining $2.4 billion was designated specifically for what's next.
That's a massive 43% of Sprint's total capital expenses, all funneled straight into growth projects. In Sprint's case, that means expanding and reinforcing its wireless networks and the back-end connectivity that ties them to the Internet at large.
The company likes to assign code names to its network improvements. The Network Vision effort, started in 2010 and winding down last year, recycled bandwidth from the old push-to-talk iDEN network to support a 4G LTE modernization. The next project goes by the Sprint Spark nickname, and is meant to take Sprint's 4G network quality to the next level.
Heaven knows that Sprint could use another network upgrade. The company has been fighting an uphill battle for years, thanks to the outcome of the huge wireless spectrum auction in 2007. The auction armed the two largest networks with even more high-quality spectrum, leaving smaller challengers like Sprint mostly out in the cold. As a result, Sprint often ranks last in surveys and tests of wireless network quality.
Sprint Spark lets one handset connect to multiple network stations at the same time, using different spectrum slices for each connection. Bundling these signals should improve Sprint's dismal service quality -- but the technology behind all of this doesn't come cheap.
You could argue that Sprint is fighting for its life, armed with fresh capital from Japan-based majority owner Softbank. Sprint's share prices have plunged more than 40% lower in 2014 as investors lost patience with this cash-intensive turnaround plan. But if Sprint can deliver the top-quality network it needs before breaking the bank, shareholders should enjoy a fantastic bounce from today's doomsday-flavored prices.
This network build is a make-or-break, bet-the-farm kind of move. Tread lightly here, because the potential rewards may be large -- but so are the risks.
Qualcomm: Thinking outside the box
Qualcomm's situation is a little bit different -- the company is a cash machine firing on all cylinders.
During the last four quarters, the chip designer generated $9.8 billion of cash from operations, pointing $1.2 billion of it toward capital expenses. Fifty-two percent of these cash dollars supported touching up Qualcomm's existing infrastructure, leaving 48%, or $630 million, for growth-oriented investments.
The company runs a lean, mean business model, where most chips roll off of third-party manufacturing lines. Qualcomm has been the world's largest seller of outsourced chips for the last decade.
But Qualcomm isn't totally committed to the fabless idea. The company's capital expenses have doubled during the last five years as Qualcomm built up a hybrid manufacturing model.
In 2013, for example, Qualcomm spent more than one-third of its capital budget on a new manufacturing plant in Taiwan. Qualcomm won't be making traditional semiconductors there. The company is rolling out a new display technology, trademarked as Mirasol, and based on the reflected-light colorized splendor of butterfly wings.
Given the need for an external light source, paired with ultra-low electric power needs, Qualcomm isn't aiming Mirasol at smartphones, tablets, or TV sets. Instead, the technology almost seems custom-made for wearable computing designs, and indeed powers Qualcomm's Toq smartwatch.
If that's not a big bet on the future, I don't know what is. Qualcomm started its Mirasol journey 10 years ago, and has promised to invest $2 billion in commercializing the technology. Chairman and ex-CEO Paul Jacobs saw the wearable trend coming from a mile away.
Make no mistake -- Qualcomm's core business is still all about mobile processors and digital communications chips. But those products are made by chip-building specialists, leaving Qualcomm to invest a ton of cash into speculative ideas like Mirasol.
Google: Less virtual, more reality
If you think of Google as a pure-play investment in online business operations, you're not doing it right. During the last four quarters, Big G invested $9.7 billion in capital projects, and a staggering 68% of these expenses went directly into growth opportunities. Google does spend a lot of money on building and maintaining data centers and the concomitant network resources around the world, but the company is digging its fingers deeper into the real world.
Management is tight-lipped when it comes to describing its capital investments, so we don't have access to Google's cash needs on a granular level. But the company can't hide its big projects entirely -- it's only the expense reports we don't have direct access to.
For starters, Google has become a consumer-facing network operator. Google Fiber is already a hit in the Kansas City -- MO and KS -- and the service will soon open in another two cities. Pulling fiber across cityscapes is a cumbersome and expensive project -- just ask any of the major telecoms or cable service providers.
Google Fiber may not be profitable for years, but that was never the big idea. Instead, Big G works hard to provide high-quality Internet access to real consumers. If Google Fiber does nothing more than inspire other service providers to improve their networks and lower their subscriber bills, then Google gets exactly what it wanted all along.
The company is also developing self-driving cars, which means spending cold, hard cash on actual vehicles and the sensor systems that guide them. Shopping Express is a same-day delivery service, powered by cars festooned with Google logos in a handful of metropolitan markets. That's another vehicle fleet.
I'm just scratching the surface here, because Google's plethora of fresh cash uses would merit its own article. Let me just point out that Google's trailing revenues have increased by 173% during the last five years -- but capital expenses grew more than tenfold.
The online giant is getting physical, and throwing around a lot of cash to get there. As a Google shareholder myself, I'm excited to see what crazy idea might be next, and which ones might break through and become dependable cash machines.