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Demand for skilled staff is sky high, but not supply, for the largest-ever U.S. infrastructure effort. Associations, carriers, and vendors look to fill the staffing gap as spending on fiber broadband climbs.

With supply chain challenges aplenty in expanding broadband networks, carriers are now facing a workforce shortage in deploying the fiber equipment that they have purchased, especially for the Fed-funded Internet-for-all program.

For those IT managers that were not yet aware of the workforce shortage, which could complicate network expansion plans, Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge sounded the alarm last month at a Moffett Nathanson investor conference.

“There is no labor pool there. For all the construction that must be done, there is no skilled labor force that is currently out there doing it that can be repurposed,” warned Rutledge. “It has to be built and trained.”

“It's going to be challenging,” he continued. “We have thousands of unfilled positions.” Charter serves over thirty-two million business and residential customers in forty-one states.

Why now? How did we get here?

The deluge of broadband funding, along with private expansion efforts, is driving a major spike in demand for those services and for workers. Many have begun to land large grants, with some launching their own training and certification programs which offer a big boost in open jobs in local communities and far beyond.

Telecom industry responds to the needs

Despite the doom-and-gloom outlooks borne out of supply chain breakdowns, planning, and component shortages, the networking industry has begun fighting back, with an ambitious fledgling training and certification program from the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) in Wilson, North Carolina, and a vastly expanded undertaking by partners AT&T and fiber manufacturer Corning. Do not forget training programs created by individual communities.

Just how broad is the shortage of tech workers needed to help carriers deploy broadband infrastructure funded by the Biden Administration's Infrastructure and Jobs Act? Consider this:

Carriers have come from far-flung locations to poach students from a nascent fiber broadband certification program launched as a pilot in early March to educate and train attendees – from the FBA in conjunction with Greenlight Community Broadband at Wilson Community College in Wilson, N.C.

The FBA has been engaged with twenty-three states about rolling out this fiber optic technician training program with their community college systems and fiber optic broadband service providers. “We look to reach all 50 states and the U.S. territories by the end of the year," said Deborah Kish, Vice President of Research and Workforce Development at the FBA, when the undertaking was launched.

With equal parts classroom and hands-on instruction, the Optical Telecom Installation Certification (OpTIC) program was designed by fiber broadband experts to quickly scale fiber technician education, fill the existing fiber skills gap, and accelerate fiber deployments across North America.

The need for skilled fiber optic technicians will significantly impact each state’s ability to deploy broadband. The FBA’s OpTIC program teaches the knowledge and skills required to professionally install, test, and maintain high-speed fiber broadband networks.

"When we saw the need for an expanded fiber workforce in order to keep up with broadband demand and growth opportunities, we began development of this intensive training program to ensure that no state is left behind in the digital equity gap," said Kish.

Not singing the Blues in rural Louisiana

LUS Fiber, a city-owned telecom in The Bayou state, was awarded $21 million of a federal grant earlier this year and is asking for a $19 million helping of the state’s $180 million program to expand in other rural Acadiana communities.

LUS is working with South Louisiana Community College (SLCC) to launch a new fiber-optic install technician program this summer to meet the expanding workforce needs of the region and help residents develop skills to launch their careers.

"We've been working with the industry now for just a little over two years to design a program that is versatile enough to produce entry-level employees into each aspect of this industry," SLCC's Director of Transportation, Distribution, & Logistics Charlotte LeLeux told the Lafayette Advertiser newspaper in June.

The school's new fiber-optic technician program, an 18–20-week course, is expected to launch at SLCC’s Crowley campus in July.

It will cover how to splice fiber optic cables, how to hang cable on telephone poles, how to operate installation equipment, and other skills. The goal will be to cover everything from construction to putting fiber in the home, LeLeux said, “so that when they're hired on by these companies, their training with them would be very minimal.”

AT&T, Corning train technicians and network specialists

Targeting workforce development, AT&T and Corning have joined forces to create a new training program focused on equipping thousands of technicians and network specialists across the industry with the skills crucial to design, engineer, install, and manage a growing fiber broadband network across the U.S.

Steve Mitchell, senior vice president, Carrier Networks at Corning Optical Communications, told me: "As the industry is currently experiencing a shortage of technicians and installers, this training will support future needs and help build the skilled workforce of tomorrow,” wrote Jeff Luong, President Broadband Access, and Adoption Initiatives at AT&T in a blog on the undertaking.

"Highly trained workers are needed and needed quickly," emphasized Luong. He predicted the program will be available in time to support the historic government investments outlined in the Biden administration's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

What’s in the program?

The Fiber Optic Training Program was launched in May and will is taught by experts across the industry, housed in Corning facilities in North Carolina, and serve needs across the country, according to the duo.

“The program includes training on optical fiber and networking, network design, hands-on splicing, connectorization, field construction for cable deployment, testing, and system turn-up,” explained Luong.

The training program will also include network system lab visits and technician ride-alongs. Upon completion, trainees will be ready to fill needed roles at carriers, construction firms, and broadband providers.

The road ahead

Success with staffing will determine if carriers meet their already stated deployment deadlines.

“Collaborating with Corning, the largest manufacturer of fiber optic cable in the U.S., will help AT&T get closer to attaining our goal of reaching 30 million locations with fiber by 2025,” said Luong in the blog post.

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With over $40 billion in funding hanging in the balance, accurate new maps are the key to achieving the goal of Internet for all by directing deployments under the Biden Administration’s broadband infrastructure investment act.

In the whirlwind of activity that is the broadband networking industry in the U.S., the most overlooked area is mapping.

Infrastructure funding figures steal the headlines, but in the drive to close the digital divide, IT managers, service providers, and states first need accurate maps that show areas that are underserved or unserved.

The goal of the broadband portion of Biden's "internet for all" aspect of the over $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs act passed in November 2021 is to have states lay out a five-year timeline to provide full internet access while ensuring affordable internet access and promoting competition among providers.

Reality bites

For this crucial goal to be completed, current and past maps that many agree were fraught with inaccuracies will need to be replaced with one based on the latest and verified data. Past maps were based on ISP self-reported data that resulted in the overstatement of those with access to broadband Internet in.

The FCC itself has publicly admitted its current broadband maps are flawed. The agency appears to overstate coverage in every state, with an average 21% false-positive rate across the U.S.

Enterprise impact

Accurate broadband mapping is crucial to the rollout and use of high-speed Internet by corporate America and far beyond.

“For enterprise IT managers, accurate mapping is critical just as it is for the states in which those IT managers have facilities,” explained Jeff Heynen, Vice President, Broadband Access and Home Networking for the Dell’Oro Group, a market research and analysis firm. “If maps are not accurate and are potentially inflating the service capabilities and reach of broadband networks in communities that are underserved, then enterprises are going to suffer with lower-speed offerings and limited provider options. And those situations are then unlikely to be improved through state and federal subsidization.”

Why maps matter

For states and other recipients of funding for broadband expansion to spend this money most effectively, they need an accurate understanding of what areas are truly “unserved” with broadband access. It relies on self-reported data from providers and measures broadband availability by census block. If even a single address in a census block has access to broadband, the entire block is considered served. This is a particular problem in rural areas, which have large census block areas.

Updated timeline for new maps and spending plans

Current FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel pledged in late March that states, local areas, and other broadband stakeholders will not have to wait until 2023 to see new broadband maps from the agency. She has promised to share new broadband maps with the industry this fall, seeking input before completion. Governors and other leaders would then have six months to use data from the new maps to fuel their final applications detailing their proposed uses.

In mid-May, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo opened applications for $45 billion in federal broadband subsidies.

Per the infrastructure bill passed last year by the Biden Administration, high-speed infrastructure to unserved (25/3 Mbps) and underserved as those without 100/20 Mbps service. The NTIA added that sites served exclusively by satellite or service based on unlicensed spectrum will be considered unserved. States must submit a request for that support either with their letter of intent or by August 15. Those who receive planning funds must submit a five-year action plan within 270 days of getting the money.

The actual outlay for broadband deployment specifies a minimum distribution of $100 million per state or other qualifying area. Though it is expected total payouts will be in the $800 million neighborhood.

Broadband haves and have-nots

Last year, BroadbandNow Research manually checked the availability of terrestrial broadband internet (wired or fixed wireless) for more than 58,000 addresses. "In all, we checked more than 110,000 address-provider combinations using the FCC Form 477 data as the "source of truth."

The firm found that forty-two million Americans do not have the ability to purchase broadband internet in 2021, according to the firm. “This is an additional 6.5 percent of Americans beyond FCC estimates.”

Fixing the maps problem

Aware of the growing problem presented, Congress stepped in in March 2020 passed the Broadband DATA Act to help fix this problem.

The act requires the FCC to create maps showing the availability of fixed and mobile broadband service across the country and identify areas that are unserved and underserved. It also requires the FCC to use more granular and precise data to develop these maps.

The map must be posted online so people can search by address, provider, state, type of service, and other factors to see coverage in their area or across the country. Congress provided the FCC with $98 million to complete that effort.

Broadband Task Force created

One year later, in February 2021, the FCC took additional action and created the Broadband Data Task Force. In doing so, the agency admitted “the need to implement long-overdue improvements to the agency’s broadband data and mapping tools.”

The Task Force will closely coordinate the Commission’s broadband mapping and data collection efforts across the various expert agency teams. Each of these teams is essential to the effort of ensuring the Commission, other Federal agencies, state and local governments, Tribal entities, and consumers will have access to granular nationwide information on the availability and quality of broadband services.

At the state level, county, and city

In anticipation of the mapping and funding process, states have created their own broadband task forces charged with reviewing and evaluating carrier plans before awarding funding for providing broadband to un- and underserved areas.

But it does not stop there at the state level, as individual cities, as well as counties in some regions of the country, have also been created. The National Association of Counties (NACO) has created a Broadband Task Force, comprised of nearly three dozen county government officials from across America, which "will study the lack of reliable broadband with a particular focus on the challenges facing underserved communities."

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Expansion-minded U.S. enterprises, and those hurt by weak supply chain links, can find 5G-driven alternatives closer to home.

Hamstrung by Covid-disrupted supply chains, some U.S. businesses are looking to shorten and localize the systems. The answer for IT managers could be north of the border, where our second-largest trade partner Canada is also using 5G to create a digital economy.

But although the top 5 Canadian carriers are working to deploy 5G networks, they lag their counterparts here in the U.S., which can present challenges for enterprises looking to expand and enhance operations in Canada.

Know your neighbor

Be aware that Canada is all in on 5G and understands what it can do for the nation’s economy, with 5G networks estimated by GSMA Intelligence to deliver approximately $150 billion in additional value add to the country's economy from 2020 to 2040. The technology will play a crucial role in driving economic growth and supporting the recovery from the impact of Covid-19.

A makeover is in the works as 5G, with its faster connections (up to twenty times the speeds of 4G), increased network capacity (up to one hundred times the traffic capacity of 4G), and ultra-low latency alone portend to next-level Canada's top industries.

  • Agriculture
  • Energy
  • Mining
  • Automotive
  • Banking
(Source: IBIS World.)

Top three exported goods pre-Covid:

  • Energy products (worth $114 billion)
  • Motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts ($93 billion)
  • Consumer goods ($71 billion) – Source: Canadian Encyclopedia.

Know the lay of the land

The country’s geography features several large cities close to the U.S. border. The collective mass of the ten provinces and three northern territories is largely rural areas. Canada’s population, 38 million in 2020, is less than that of California.

Deployment costs: As stated by PWC Canada, the country’s smaller telecom industry prevents it from benefitting from the economies of scale enjoyed by carriers in the states. This could mean pricier network equipment and consumer devices.

Carrier competition/regulatory returns: With five key carriers deploying 5G in Canada, U.S. enterprise IT managers have greater choices for now. However, Rogers is working to acquire Shaw for $26 billion this year. Will more acquisitions follow as competition heightens?

Also of note is the fact that competition among these carriers is fierce whether providers are pressing regulators – the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) - to block acquisitions and spending on spectrum purchases. This could slow deployments should the regulatory process get bogged down in disputes between the carriers. The CRTC greenlit the pending Rogers buyup of smaller Shaw earlier this year.

However, Canada's commissioner of competition intends to oppose Rogers’ proposed deal with Shaw, the companies said in a statement released in early May.

Regional vs. national: Canada is currently home to both, with Bell Canada providing country-wide service while smaller SaskTel focuses on its province (Saskatchewan). Concurrently, regional carrier Videotron (Quebec) recently spent $830 million on wireless spectrum it hopes to use to provide services across the country.

Private 5G networks

With the deployment of 5G in Canada about 18 months behind that of the U.S., businesses seeking to add sites north of the border could consider extending private 5G networks to these not yet served and remote locations, according to John Simcoe, Telecom, and Media Leader for PwC Canada. In areas that Canadian carriers plan to reach with 5G service, adding sites could be done using cross-carrier exchange agreements with U.S. carriers.

With one of three 5G spectrum auctions in Canada not yet completed, IT managers need to check to see that their networks /services in the U.S. use the same radio frequencies bands as those of Canadian carriers and private network providers, advises Simcoe.

Reaching rural sites: In the U.S., a combined $80 billion-plus has been approved for broadband deployment to close the digital divide (Rural Development Opportunity Funding), and the infrastructure and jobs bill from the Biden administration in the last year.

The investment in Canada started earlier but is far smaller. This could mean reaching unserved and underserved locations will be more expensive and take longer, and could present a losing proposition for service providers.

However, if the rural and remote locations happen to host businesses from top industries such as mining, oil, and transportation, it is a safe bet that these Canadian economic engines will be served early and completely by 5G services, emphasized PwC Canada’s Simcoe.

Canada started earlier, in 2016, on sizable infrastructure investments. It launched The Rural and northern stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. The effort earmarked $2 billion over 10 years for priorities in small, rural, and remote communities spanning roads, broadband Internet connectivity, renewable energy, and facilities that support food security.

Canada added the Connect to Innovate: Rural and Remote Broadband effort to provide $500 million over five years, delivered by the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada program to extend and enhance broadband service in rural and remote communities. The funds were to bring high-speed Internet to 300 rural and remote communities.

Performance innovation – Standalone 5G nets

Rogers revealed in March that it has teamed with Ericsson to launch one of the first commercial 5G Standalone Networks (SA). The new service was activated after completing the rollout of Canada’s first national standalone 5G core.

With 5G core and 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) slicing, Rogers claims it can deliver new services to customers, such as dedicated private networks, public safety applications, and access to edge computing.

The carrier said that it has completed its 5G standalone core network deployment nationally and is deploying its 5G standalone service coverage in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver.

The SA difference

Simply stated, NSA makes it easier for network operators to deploy a 5G network as it can reuse current 4G facilities.

An important example of the difference between a 5G SA network and a 5G NSA system is that the former allows wireless customers with capable devices to connect to the 5G SA network. Such customers will automatically connect to the 5G SA service where it is available. The benefits are higher speeds and lower latency.

In contrast, 5G NSA mode networks rely on the 4G network facilities to provide more speed and higher data bandwidth. A 5G-enabled smartphone will connect to a 5G or 4G network, depending on conditions.

Device availability and certification

Because 5G deployment in Canada is proceeding at a slower pace than in the U.S., the list of available user devices is shorter. The good news is that Rogers has established a device certification program. Expect other carriers to follow suit as their 5G networks expand.

But with fewer vendors part of Canada’s telecom industry, U.S. IT managers might find a shorter list of supported devices for their use and workers’ use north of the border.

Rethinking trade and infrastructure

After two years of Covid-driven dysfunction and breakdowns in once-preferred global supply chains, rapid 5G deployments by close-by countries could receive greater consideration as IT managers evaluate adjustments and alternatives.