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In the wake of the broadband access-focused Biden spending bill, the NTIA has earmarked $1 billion for carriers to enhance and upgrade the crucial infrastructure that connects the last mile to long-haul networks.

In its rush to roll out high-speed services to un and underserved areas, the Biden administration's infrastructure investment and jobs act has focused on the broadband access segment of carrier networks.

But now help is on the way for the middle mile, which connects access networks to high-capacity national and regional backbone networks. The NTIA has launched a $1 billion fund for carriers fortifying this segment for enterprises of all sizes.

The National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) is within the Department of Commerce and is the Executive Branch agency responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues. The NTIA’s programs and policymaking focus on expanding broadband Internet access and adoption.

Big bucks for middle-mile broadband

In May, the NTIA ‘s Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program released a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) along with key dates for carriers interested in landing a piece of the $1 billion for the middle mile of their networks. All applications for funding must be received by September 30.

Funds will be disbursed on March 1, 2023. Complete buildout of middle-mile infrastructure must be completed no later than five years after the receipt of the NTIA funds.

Who is eligible?

Any state, political subdivision of a state, tribal government, technology company, electric utility, utility cooperative, or public utility district is eligible for middle mile funding, according to the NTIA. The list also includes any telecommunications company, telecommunications cooperative, most any type of nonprofit, economic development authority, or any partnership of two or more of these entities.

Enterprise IT impact

“Subsidization of middle mile networks is intended to expand their reach into more communities so that they can deliver premium broadband services to both residential and business customers,” explained Jeff Heynen, VP of Broadband Access and Home Networking with Dell’Oro Group, a global market research and analysis firm. “Without those networks, communities are on an island. So, they are critical infrastructure that deserves as much attention as the last mile networks themselves.”

Given the historic spending on network upgrades and expansion funded by the infrastructure and jobs act, Heynen believes that the NTIA will need to distribute more than $1 billion to cover the essential costs.

Middle mile challenges for IT leaders

Know your provider. IT managers should always be aware of who is supplying middle mile access to their retail service provider. Most are not household names, and many are not known for spending big on their networks, as serving rural areas is expensive.

Aging infrastructure. Have middle milers underinvested in their infrastructure? Fair, poor, or worse performance can be indicators of this. “Critical edge POPs and data centers might not have the best connections and could result in poor network performance, especially for cloud-based services,” cautioned Heynen.

Spending challenges. Expense can limit some middle-mile networks. Middle-mile providers avoid remote communities with low residential and business density for the same reason last-mile providers have stayed away until the infrastructure investment plan. Compared with building in densely populated urban areas, expanding into rural communities is expensive for many.

Performance issues. Problems meeting or exceeding service level agreements (SLA) covering performance can mean middle mile networks are due for upgrades or replacement. SLAs need detailed descriptions of every service offered. Service definitions should include how the services are delivered, whether maintenance service is offered, and where dependencies exist.

Investment targets. With the NTIA funding program, the hope is that middle milers will spend on optical transport, switches, and carrier routers—generally all aggregation equipment. But do not forget about the fiber and conduit itself. They will need a lot more of that to get to new POPs, data centers, and small cell locations.

Follow the money. IT managers may need to track the NTIA funding program process and plan accordingly as carriers often must wait a long time between bidding and release of funds, as was the case with the Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

Learn the program. “Understand the federal broadband funding and state grant programs, their timelines, and process. Manage the timeline between winning the bid and getting the funding,” advised Cisco’s Robin Olds in a recent blog on the vendor’s website. “For example, the Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant process in some cases took more than a year between when a bid was submitted to when money was appropriated.” The middle mile carriers must understand these factors before they can produce a timeline for enterprises.

Check on possible delays. IT managers should check with these service segment providers to see if and how supply chain issues, chip shortages, and inflation may affect the enhancement, expansion, and upgrades of middle-mile networks.

The Bottom Line

Large federal infrastructure plans: the FCC’s RDOF, the Biden administration's infrastructure and jobs act, and now the NTIA’s $1 billion middle mile program, collectively portend to change the way business does business moving forward.

Understanding how these funding efforts work, what they include, and their likely timelines should give IT leaders valuable insight and perspective that can be used to enhance enterprise network planning in turbulent times.

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Early implementers favor partnerships over Amazon’s expansive, do-it-yourself model. What are the top considerations for IT leaders?

Retailers Walmart and Walgreens continue to move forward with drone delivery services, even as innovator Amazon has yet to launch its decade-in-the-making offering.

That is because enterprises are evaluating drone delivery alternatives to time and resource-intensive DIY internal efforts that allow IT managers in retail to get running and valuable experience faster.

Drone delivery progress report

Amazon rival Walmart has been delivering items from select stores in its home state of Arkansas via drone for a year through a partnership with innovator DroneUp, a drone delivery flight services provider. Another competitor, Alphabet’s Wing, launched commercial drone deliveries in Texas in April with customer Walgreens pharmacies.

In late May, David Guggina, Senior Vice President of Innovation and Automation, Walmart U.S., announced in a blog that Walmart-DroneUp would be expanding its delivery network partner to 34 sites by yearend. This provides "the potential to reach 4 million U.S. households across six states – Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. This provides us the ability to deliver over one million packages by drone in a year."

The drone opportunity

Drone package delivery is alive and well, according to a team of experts at McKinsey’s Aerospace & Defense Practice, who has been tracking its emergence on a global level and have identified three keys to those looking to launch.

“The industry is real and booming,” according to the McKinsey team. “Over the past three years, there have been over 660,000 commercial drone deliveries to customers, not including the countless test flights to develop and prove the technology.”

In fact, the team wrote, drone deliveries had become a daily occurrence. “As of early 2022, we estimate that more than 2,000 drone deliveries are occurring each day worldwide. The growth rate is accelerating every week, and we project that there will be close to 1.5 million deliveries in 2022, up from just under half a million in 2021.”

Critical juncture

While drone package deliveries are growing, and important indicators are positive, the management consulting firm sounded words of caution about the road ahead.

“We are at a critical time in the drone delivery industry. Volume has grown dramatically in recent years, but the path ahead is not yet clear,” according to McKinsey. “Regulations, customer acceptance, and cost will all determine whether the industry reaches its potential to disrupt global logistics or remains limited to isolated applications.”

Key factors for enterprise IT leaders:

1) Regulatory landscape

The regulatory landscape can make or break an enterprise’s drone delivery undertaking by dictating the scale and scope of the operations.

“Regulation dictates the type of operations allowed, including parameters related to geographic areas and airspace, times of day, and the conditions required for flight. All these factors can have a large impact on costs,” according to the McKinsey team.

“Regulation can determine or limit one of the key costs of launching drone delivery, the operator-to-drone ratio. There is a big cost difference if, for example, regulations require one operator for each drone or allow a single operator to control a dozen or more drones.” Regulations also determine airworthiness requirements for drones, and the guidelines could potentially increase costs and delay at-scale operations, the McKinsey team wrote.

2) Public reaction (and acceptance?)

Another gating factor in the launch of a drone delivery service is the need to gain the public's trust and acceptance of drone delivery (and maintain it). New ways of doing business in towns and cities for visible approaches like drone delivery can evoke concerns by consumers.

The firm explained that actual adoption is likely to differ across neighborhoods depending on a variety of factors, including population density, geographic location, and local weather conditions.

3) Cost(s)

Consumers will favor deliveries with the lowest cost if all other factors are equal. While drone deliveries have grown markedly worldwide in the last few years, some only extend one mile from stores, as is the case with Walmart's program with DroneUp, as per FAA regulations.

4) Technology

Drone deliveries only go as far as a blend of technologies can take them. IT managers in retail and beyond need to plan accordingly as few have the deep pockets and technical resources committed to Amazon’s undertaking.

The serial innovator has built many sophisticated delivery platforms. In a website posting dated June 13, the company claimed to have “created more than two dozen (drone) prototypes.”

Further, Amazon has gone far beyond creating delivery drones themselves by building an advanced sense-and-avoid system to make air operations safer during flight.

Drones and the 5G advantage

The emergence of 5G networks can boost the operational efficiency of drones, according to Adam Schink, Senior Manager of Innovation & Scouting at BT Global, in The Future of Innovation: How 5G Is Pushing Drone Technology Forward.

“A connection to a 5G network means a drone can send information back to base in real time. Early drone technology meant all the information from drone-mounted cameras, sensors and telemetry could only be uploaded from the drone’s hard drive once it had landed,” Schink wrote. A 5G connection changes all that and opens new possibilities.

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The fast-growing sector may have businesses looking elsewhere to alternatives with faster options to expand networks to remote offices and WFH residences.

For those who looked skyward for solutions to problems here on Earth, Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators promise to deliver high-speed Internet around the world as part of a new era high stakes space race.

The entry of SpaceX and Amazon into the low-earth orbit satellite business, combined with their televised manned rocket rides to space, showed what could be accomplished by some of the richest men on Earth, Elon Musk of SpaceX and Amazon's Jeff Bezos.

The business of tech

But ironically, the economics of launching vast fleets of satellites into low Earth orbit to deliver lower latency and affordable price have many wondering if and why they should be looking to the option for help connecting businesses and homes with Internet here on Earth.

That leaves IT managers to evaluate LEO services offered by SpaceX (with an estimated 2,200 birds in flight for its Starlink service) and promised by Amazon Project Kuiper, which has yet to launch a single LEO bird*) for viability now as an option for serving a remote workforce comprising remote offices and home workers.

A SpaceX Starlink update

When we last visited this space last November, the Starlink service was in beta, leaving a few veteran providers such as Viasat, HughesNet, and OneWeb to serve interested enterprises and consumers. But now we have pricing from SpaceX for business and residential users, pricing that could hurt slow adoption.

Starlink Residential costs $100 a month and a one-time $599 charge for the dish and a Wi-Fi router. The equipment comes in a kit for subscribers to install, which requires a clear line of sight to the sky. Latency (a big selling point for satellite services) will be largely under 20 milliseconds. Supported data throughput is roughly 100Mbps for the downlink but much less for the return path.

Starlink Business, set to serve up to 20 users at an office, costs $500 a month with a one-time $2,500 dish and CPE charge that, like residential, comes in a self-install kit. Latency will be between 20-40 milliseconds with an expected download speed of between 150-350 Mbps. Customers must download the Starlink app to get underway. There are no long-term contracts or caps on usage.

The challenges

Price problems

“That seems a bit pricey relative to business-class cable and fiber offerings. But then again, when it is your only viable option, then you’ll pay the money,” explained Jeff Heynen, VP of Broadband Access and Home Networking for Dell’Oro Group, a global market research and advisory services company. “I suspect the LEOs will continue to expand their service offerings and applicability to businesses and end customers beyond residential, but cost remains a barrier to entry for now.”

Competition on Earth

While LEO satellite service providers are working on launching constellations of satellites, it's no secret that federally funded, nationwide broadband rollout enabled by the Biden Administration's Infrastructure and Jobs Act already has hundreds of millions in funding headed to states. It will bankroll statewide broadband deployments by service providers to connect a huge part of LEO operators' target customers – underserved and unserved locations, most located in rural areas.

The problem here is that carriers' expansion media options, fiber, and fixed microwave access (FWA) can offer higher speeds than the LEO technology and may reach customers sooner.

Broadband cable systems also offer speed competition to LEO services and the added benefit of already operating distribution systems with large residential and business reach outside metro areas.

Reliability issues

With incomplete LEO satellite fleets par for the course, the issues of resulting downtime present a concern for enterprises. Downtime is money, and more, so IT managers need to press for strong service-level agreements (SLA) to avoid service interruptions with compensation for unavailability. Heynen advises enterprise IT managers not to subscribe without them.

Geographic coverage

Coverage will improve with more LEO satellite launches. At present, Starlink service is not available in large swaths of the U.S. Other LEO satellite operators, including Viasat and OneWeb, are expanding deployment of the birds to expand geographic coverage around the world.

Accurate coverage maps will play a crucial role in enterprise IT’s interest in LEO satellite services since service regions vary by provider.

Disputes between operators

Although disputes can slow the rollout of new and current services, it’s unclear if and how a dispute between DISH Networks and SpaceX over spectrum use will impact either.

At issue is SpaceX's claim to the FCC that DISH's use of spectrum in the 12Ghz auction would interfere with Musk's LEO satellite service. DISH seeks to now use the spectrum it paid for video and data distribution service to launch a 5G wireless network service. DISH claims the use of Starlink service on mobile vehicles should lead to service deactivation by the FCC if SpaceX doesn't. Stay tuned.

The bottom line

When compared to traditional satellites in higher, geosynchronous orbit, LEOs fare much better when it comes to latency and speed. But since they do have limitations on the bandwidth they can offer, Heynen believes LEOs are a viable option in cases where fixed broadband operations are limited or unavailable. That’s not to say IT managers shouldn’t keep tabs on this emerging operator service sector as those LEO providers get closer to full satellite fleet deployment and farther from initial launches.

*NOTE: In 2020, the FCC issued Amazon a license that requires Amazon to launch at least half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation by 2026.

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Tens of billions in infrastructure funding are being distributed to close the digital divide, but will certain short-term changes result in problems down the road for all parties?

Aiming to provide enterprise customers with expanded and enriched broadband networks to reach new sites and home workers during challenging times, carriers and their vendors are reworking longstanding practices to skirt weak supply chain links.

Tens of billions in federal funding are earmarked for the telecom industry’s largest ever infrastructure undertaking. The focus is on closing the digital divide and introducing high-speed services using next-generation fiber technologies.

But supply chain woes, chip shortages, and more have some carriers changing the way they acquire broadband infrastructure from equipment suppliers to advance their high-speed Internet service rollouts during a time of mounting frustration.

Current delay situation

When you combine delays in fiber optics, the resin that surrounds them, and the electronics for fiber broadband, carriers are experiencing 52-week lead times, according to Gary Bolton, President of the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA). The group held its annual conference in June and turned away over one hundred exhibitors.

Bolton said 52 weeks is workable for companies that plan their fiber deployments carefully. By the time they apply for a government grant, design their networks, and do other planning, they are going to need at least 52 weeks, anyway.

Rush to cash in

The allure of the largest ever broadband breakout has caught the attention of the telecom industry and enterprise IT. Carriers hope – sooner rather than later - to interest enterprises in expanding and upgrading their corporate networks to reach new offices and support work-from-home efforts as the telecom industry tires of rolling delays from supply chain issues. The waiting is the hardest part.

“Investment in next-generation fiber technologies has skyrocketed over the last four years,” explained Jeff Heynen, VP of Broadband Access and Home Networking for Dell’Oro Group, a market research and advisory services firm. “Broadband service margins remain incredibly strong, providing additional incentives for multi-gigabit service rollouts. Fiber plans have been pushed forward to help (upgrade) access networks.”

Shortening the acquisition process

Non-traditional acquisition processes have taken root. Instead of first apprising vendors of their gear needs in "forecasts," to vendors, Consolidated Communications has dropped forecasts and replaced them with actual purchase orders to shorten the process, explained Tom White, CTO of the carrier, which operates in over twenty states from coast to coast. "A purchase order out trumps a forecast all day, every day." Breaking practices helps deal with a 9-12 month wait on electronics and other required components.

Buying big

Ziply Fiber, a carrier providing business and residential services in parts of the Pacific Northwest, has taken Consolidated’s approach a step farther. “We own a lot of real estate and yards behind buildings,” began John Van Oppen, VP of Network for the company. "We fill it up with a parts supply of about 12 months and keep ordering on the back end." Submitting early purchase orders has also helped the carrier, which also uses the process for acquiring fiber. However, both carrier technology executives admit this changed process is not guaranteed to always work, as equipment vendors often receive de-commit notices from the makers of components used in equipment because of their production challenges. This can add three to six months to the availability of broadband networking – everything from fiber CPE to outside plant equipment such as cabinets.

The carrier executives – and others - discussed numerous issues in the Broadband Technology Summit, a multiday event created by Fierce Telecom and the Dell’Oro Group.

Concerns with overbuying

Dell’Oro’s Heynen questioned the long-term merit of overbuying. "This makes me nervous because the overcommitment is likely going to turn into an overshoot once the supply chain issues are resolved. It is called the Snapback Effect, and we are going to see some of that next year. But even if the providers are overbuying to move up the queue for equipment, the vendors still cannot ship to those commitments, which is reflected in the growing backlogs these vendors have reported."

Low inventories, which have been commonplace during Covid-19, provide a potential snapback effect for the economy.

The road ahead?

Heynen is concerned that recent interest rate increases will slow down purchases and whether a percentage of the vendor backlogs would simply go away as providers canceled projects and waited things out. He is convinced that there will be some operators “who just slow roll their buildouts or cancel some fiber overbuild projects that just aren’t strategic enough.”

Targeting small rural carriers that have landed RDOF funding but that typically lack global supply chains, Nokia in June introduced a network-in-a-box package that lets them provide high-speed fiber services to towns with up to 1,000 homes.

Each Nokia Broadband Relief Kit is comprised of the necessary FTTH equipment, software licenses, support, and state-of-the-art in-home Wi-Fi gateways required to serve a typical town of 1,000 households, according to the vendor. The kits support GPON and XGS-PON over a single port and fiber using Nokia’s Multi-PON-Module (MPM) technology.

The kits can support 25G PON today or when the need arises, according to the vendor. The kits are available now and include expedited delivery. Nokia has created twenty-five of these kits.

Households in unserved or underserved areas have been hardest hit by global supply chain shortages of telecommunications equipment as operators planning new gigabit broadband networks have been unable to complete their builds.

While both public and private funds are available in unprecedented quantities, many small operators have found themselves unable to secure the necessary materials from their established supply chains to meet their self-imposed construction schedules or regulatory-imposed milestones.

Manufacturing might

Global cable maker Corning has asserted that manufacturing capacity is a large part of the problem, especially in North America.

CEO Wendell Weeks put it on the company’s Q4 2021 earnings call in January “if we could make more, we could sell more…the real bottleneck is not resin, is not raw materials, is not labor. It is just us being able to get into place capacity that is more appropriately balanced to the demand that we are experiencing.”

To that end, Corning announced plans to build a new optical fiber manufacturing facility in Poland, and in September 2021, said it would spend $150 million to expand its optical cable manufacturing operation in North Carolina.

The new manufacturing facility in Poland is set to become operational this year. That will free up U.S. fiber capacity for U.S. demand, according to Corning. The company’s execs believe Corning and others expanding manufacturing capacity will improve lead times for their carrier customers.

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If the FCC rules interference is a concern, spectrum sharing systems could provide a solution for all parties by maximizing the use of the 12GHz band.

In the latest spectrum challenge, Elon Musk's SpaceX claims DISH Networks wants to use the 12 GHz band with its terrestrial 5G network, which would cause harmful interference to his emerging Starlink satellite Internet service. DISH disagrees.

For its part, DISH already has a 5G network and hopes to expand it by moving into the 12 GHz band, which it uses to provide satellite TV service.

In January, the FCC voted to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comment on ways the 12 GHz band might be better used. The notice sought input on methods for allowing new uses in the band while protecting incumbents.

Both operators have submitted to the FCC technical studies that support their arguments regarding interference. SpaceX’s Musk has successfully urged customers to contact the agency supporting the company’s claim.

DISH continues to claim a 12GHz 5G network can coexist with satellite internet services without generating interference.

Both operators, and much of the telecom industry, await a ruling from the FCC, which has not said when it will act.

Enterprise IT impact

Enterprise IT, however, may not feel a significant impact from the resolution of the challenge. That is unless they seek broader competition in the private 5G wireless network sector or are looking to connect mostly rural sites using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite services.

The broader impact could reach farther if the FCC finds no inference and/or recommends a spectrum sharing approach that could maximize the use of the 12GHz band by all interested parties without fear of interruption.

This appears to have worked well with the Citizens' Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) creation, auction, and diverse spectrum winning bidders, including many enterprises, most looking to build private 5G networks.

Building a spectrum-sharing infrastructure will take time, and that is once the FCC rules on the 12GHz band dispute.

A recent history of 5G service interference concerns

For veteran IT staff, this is but the very latest in a lengthy list of disputes over potential interference caused by shared use of the same spectrum. Most recently was last year’s spike in concern about 5G services offered in the C-band near U.S. airports interfering with altimeters, which are used to gauge elevation in airplanes.

The concerned parties expressing serious concern about harmful interference included the Federal Aviation Administration, CEOs of several airlines, the Department of Transportation, and plane makers. AT&T and Verizon were in opposition to slowing the deployment of 5G near airports. But the carriers eventually agreed in January to delay rollouts by six months while the key players explored the issue.

In June, the FAA announced that key stakeholders in the aviation and wireless industries have identified a series of steps that will continue to protect commercial air travel from disruption by 5G C-band interference while also enabling Verizon and AT&T to enhance service around certain airports.

  • The phased approach requires operators of regional aircraft with radio altimeters most susceptible to interference to retrofit them with radio frequency filters by the end of 2022. This work has already begun and will continue on an expedited basis, according to the agency.
  • At the same time, the FAA said it worked with the wireless companies to identify airports around which their service can be enhanced with the least risk of disrupting flight schedules.

During initial negotiations in January, the wireless companies offered to keep mitigations in place until July 5, 2022, while they worked with the FAA to better understand the effects of 5G C-band signals on sensitive aviation instruments.

Based on progress achieved during a series of stakeholder roundtable meetings, the wireless companies offered Friday to continue with some level of voluntary mitigations for another year, according to the FAA.

Despite the collaborative efforts to work out a solution, a permanent fix has not yet been created and agreed on.

The CBRS sharing solution

If the FCC and its tech experts are concerned about interference between DISH 5G and SpaceX birds, the situation could be addressed so that neither is shut out of the 12 GHz band. That could be enabled using spectrum sharing, which was used to let carriers, enterprises, and others to concurrently use the 3.5 to 3.7 GHz space alongside longtime users. The 2020 auction made available space to 228 winning bidders and brought the FCC $4.58 billion.

DISH, bidding under the name Wetterhorn Wireless, came in as the second largest total winning bidder, spending over $900 million.

A wireless industry ecosystem, including the FCC, equipment vendors, and those building systems necessary to enable greater spectrum sharing, have been hard at work to prepare the CBRS for a wave of new users. The band is valued at over $15 billion.

The initial commercial deployment of CBRS service was approved by Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators Amdocs, CommScope, Federated Wireless, Google, and Sony.

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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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