Fiber builders were maxed out early in 2020 and then AT&T decided to pass 12 million more homes with fiber over four years. The FCC RDOF program adds millions more. The headline comment is from one of the largest construction companies in U.S. telecom.
I believe the skill and parts shortage means it's stupid to spend more than $2-3 billion on broadband infrastructure in 2022 and little more in 2023. Growth after that is possible but would require effective manpower training and organization building.
Industry experience is employees become most efficient after 18-24 months. Building an organization that can efficiently manage fiber construction took 3 and 4 years at Verizon and British Telecom. I spoke with Burlington Telecom, a city-owned fiber service. It had gone broke, leaving the city with a $30 million bill to cover. I spoke with them about four years after they began construction. They told me, "Now, we are ready to do the job."
Jonathan Adelstein, now head of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, oversaw billions in spending as head of the Rural Utilities Service. He writes me
To get broadband built out quickly, you need three ingredients that are in short supply right now: equipment, like yellow trucks for construction – materials, like fiber – and manpower, especially skilled labor that knows how to deploy broadband infrastructure. You need all three in place at once to get networks built.
Right now is bad timing on all three, which means this could take longer than policymaker hope and more delays than rural America needs.
I’ve never heard more concern from contractors about the lack of available workers. Given workers are in short supply right now, if you add massive additional demand from a federal infrastructure investment, contractors are telling me they just don’t know how they will get it done.
They are having trouble keeping us with business booming as it is. Congress needs to invest in broadband workforce development – especially apprenticeships -- along with investing in the infrastructure itself if they want to see it deployed any time soon.
Some more observations from the field:
Top fiber consultant Mike Render estimates $60 billion spending on fiber over the next five years, almost double prior periods, even without the infrastructure bill. Gary Bolton of the Fiber Broadband Association confirms, "Workforce shortages remain in the building and construction of fiber and 5G networks."
NATE President Todd Schlekeway surveyed his members, who include most of the major US telecom contractors, in 2020. In an interview, he told me
Our members reported a shortage of 14,693 workers. The association is working with community colleges on training. In almost all parts of the country, graduates of the short training course are finding jobs right away.
Patrick Coughlin is Chief Development Officer of Firstlight, which provides backbone fiber as well as retail service in Northeast & Mid-Atlantic states. He sees construction prices increasing and timelines elongating. He expects new entrants to come in "because there's opportunity" but they will need to develop expertise.
The Rural Wireless Association is warning the FCC of "price increases and inflation expected over the next two years due to the workforce labor and semiconductor shortages."