Witnesses and lawmakers at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing today mulled obstacles and solutions to bolstering the work force to deploy 5G services as well as regulatory barriers to the build-out of the technology.
Both witnesses and lawmakers stressed the importance of cooperation at the federal, state, and local levels and within industry to ensure that there are enough workers to deploy the necessary infrastructure, including small cells, for 5G deployment. The FCC also drew praise from many for steps it has taken to streamline the deployment of wireless infrastructure, although some contended that the agency has wrongly infringed on the authority of localities.
“Work force readiness is a critical component to U.S. 5G leadership,” committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) said in opening the hearing, citing a “fundamental shift” in 5G network deployment compared with the rollout of 4G services, including the need for huge numbers of small cells.
Sen. Wicker cited estimates that there are currently 27,000 U.S. tower workers – although an industry representative said the number is about 29,000 – but they agreed that the industry believes that another 20,000 workers will be needed.
Lawmakers and witnesses cited the benefits of apprenticeship programs, training initiatives with community colleges, in-house training, and other efforts to increase the number of trained tower workers. Several witnesses also asked Congress to pass pending legislation that could help.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, complained about actions that the FCC took in 2018 to streamline the deployment of small cells, arguing that they undercut localities and tribes. “I don’t think that’s the right way to move forward,” she said. “Things that are held up in a legal battle [are] not deployment. … This can be a cooperative process.”
As for the industry’s work force problems, Sen. Cantwell said, “I do think that we need to illuminate how important this issue is.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) repeatedly complained that the FCC is not committed to ensuring that his constituents have access to broadband services. “I think they ignore constituents in places like Alaska,” he said. “We got to move the FCC to Anchorage and maybe you guys will pay attention.”
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, the FCC’s point person on wireless infrastructure deployment, said actions adopted by the FCC have produced “remarkable results,” including an acceleration of fiber deployment.
Mr. Carr also noted that a 5G jobs initiative he is promoting is designed to attract more people to the tower-climbing profession. “It looks to community colleges and technical schools as a pipeline for 5G jobs,” he said.
Mr. Carr also cited efforts by the Department of Labor in the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP), in coordination with the Wireless Infrastructure Association, which he said has produced 2,085 apprentices with 30 employers.
“In light of the various efforts that are underway—community college programs, in-house or third-party training efforts, and registered apprenticeship programs—the FCC has convened a working group that can bring all these different stakeholders together,” Mr. Carr said. “In particular, the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee now has a Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Job Skills and Training Opportunities Working Group that is focused on expanding our 5G workforce.”
Mr. Carr also urged passage of the Telecommunications Opportunities for Workers Engaging in Real (TOWER) Infrastructure Deployment Act (S 2363), which was introduced by Sens. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) (TR Daily, Aug. 1, 2019).
The bill would require the FCC to establish the Telecommunications Workforce Development Advisory Council, which would be tasked with developing recommendations regarding “(1) the needs of the workforce in the communications industry to promote the deployment of communications facility installations; (2) ways to encourage participation in industry-led workforce development programs; and (3) ways to improve workforce development in the communications industry,” a news release on the bill noted. The bill had been scheduled for a markup last month, but it was pulled from the agenda (TR Daily, Dec. 11, 2019).
Jimmy Miller, president and chief executive officer of MillerCo, Inc. and chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), said, “2020 marks the early stages of what appears to be a protracted cycle for the telecom industry as we deploy the next generation of wireless and integrate innovative technologies to enhance the economy. However, the 5G rollout, coupled with targeted initiatives to continue to expand broadband and related infrastructure to rural and underserved areas of the United States, is creating a major industry challenge across the country, its various regions and communities. This challenge involves attracting, recruiting and retaining a skilled, productive and safe telecom workforce for all industry sectors. Based on industry estimates, our industry has approximately 29,000 workers, who we call tower technicians, as part of our existing labor pool. According to recent projections, the industry could accommodate as many as 20,000 additional technicians over the next 10 years to meet current and future demands related to next generation infrastructure and broadband deployment activities. Industry needs to promote industry better.”
Mr. Miller also said that the industry needs further streamlining of infrastructure policies to enable 5G services to be deployed effectively.
He also called on lawmakers to introduce companion Senate legislation to the Communications Jobs Training Act (HR 1848), which was introduced by Reps. Dave Loebsack (D., Iowa) and Markwayne Mullin (R., Okla.) and would authorize $20 million a year for three years for an FCC competitive grant program for work force training (TR Daily, March 25, 2019). NATE also supports S 2363, he said.
Mr. Miller also mentioned the TIRAP, but he said that his company trains employees in-house. He added that the TIRAP is “having difficulty getting traction at the Department of Labor from a funding perspective.”
Lisa Youngers, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, hailed the FCC’s creation of a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and ongoing support from the Rural Utilities Service’s ReConnect program.
While she said her members are pleased that the FCC in 2018 adopted a one-touch make-ready order (TR Daily, Aug. 2, 2018), she said that implementation has been problematic. She urged the agency “to make sure this process is fully implemented as soon as possible and that the utilities are not allowed to cause further delay by not having available enough certified contractor personnel.”
She also called on Congress to pass a bill “establishing a commercially reasonable remedy – that is, the same type of alternative dispute resolution process that is found in commercial agreements between parties with equal bargaining power, and it must be one where an appeal can be taken to court – and not to the full FCC.”
Ms. Youngers also said her group is supportive of S 2363.
NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield also expressed support for the RDOF. But she bemoaned the difficulty of going through the federal permitting process.
“We believe sensible reforms such as harmonizing agency applications, increasing staffing in local offices for permitting, and providing a categorical exclusion for the installation of communications infrastructure on previously disturbed federal lands would improve broadband deployment speeds without harming the environment,” she said. “While legislation has attempted to take this on in the past, it has focused largely on facility deployment for mobile wireless services – but as noted above, these wireless networks require robust wired backhaul to realize their full potential, which means we need greater focus on harmonizing and rationalizing permitting rules related to deployment of fiber networks as well.”
Ms. Bloomfield also cited difficulties in siting infrastructure in railroad rights of way.
As for the OTMR rules, “NTCA members seeking to invoke this new rule report a common barrier in the lack of properly trained staff or outside contractors qualified and available to perform the work,” she said. “Even when the process for invoking one-touch-make-ready is complete such that work can begin, the lack of qualified staff can act as another barrier to timely installation of broadband infrastructure.”
Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld criticized the FCC for citing the need to win the global race to 5G as a reason to preempt localities.
“The history of cable franchise preemption demonstrates that preempting local governments allows carriers to short-change poorer neighborhoods and rural communities,” he said. “Congress should ignore the claims of wireless networks that without further preemption of local authority America will ‘lose the race to 5G.’ To the contrary, by giving carriers free reign over local deployments, we will see large swaths of urban and rural America cut out of the 5G future entirely.” —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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