What is the State of the Wireless Workforce Today?


We often overlook what is going on in the field. We see the mergers, 5G deployments, and LTE upgrades. So much work, but do we have enough site workers?

The industry had over 29,000 tower climbers in 2015, according to Wireless Estimator, http://wirelessestimator.com/over-29000-tower-climbers-identified-in-extensive-industry-study/.

I am struggling to get updated numbers on tower climbers, crews, or companies. I believe NATE has over 900 members, but many of those are now carriers and vendors. (https://natehome.com/membership/current-nate-members/).

It’s not obvious how many climbers there are and I don’t believe it’s a job that people are getting into unless they are young and the mean salary of $54K/yr looks good. (https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/Tower-Climber-Salary

The thing is, people, die doing this job. It is very dangerous. OSHA and the FCC did a good job building awareness and making rules to protect the workers. NATE is a strong advocate of training and safety today. 

I would like to see the industry build, but it’s one of those industries where it is either really busy or really slow. Some companies can make it through the slow times, but larger tower climbing companies are rare because they know they have to downsize when things get slow again.

So the workforce is hard to track, we need to look at what’s going on in the field. Are all the crews taken?

It doesn’t seem that way. I am sure a wave of climbers will be trained again.

There is more to site work than climbers, but it’s going back to the old days where the climbing crew is expected to do more than construction. They have to be able to support powering up the BTS and commissioning the BTS. 

The Integration is often done remotely once the backhaul is connected. It’s often done by NOCs offshore. 

There is so much more than tower climbing. Most people just look at that one aspect. Work for a deployment is more than asking a crew to install antennas.

Demand for work increases!

There is a lot going on in the industry today. Look at what’s happening.

  • FirstNet deployment across the USA.
  • 5G upgrades across the USA.
  • Sprint’s Massive MIMO build.
  • T-Mobile’s 600MHz build.
  • All those small carriers that bought Chinese gear need to replace it.
  • Removal of 2G and 3G systems continue.
  • 4G continues to expand and grow.
  • The fiber demand has been growing.
  • Small cells and CRAN sites are moving faster than ever.
  • Fixed wireless solutions are being deployed across the USA.
  • CBRS has sparked growth outside of the carrier space.
  • DAS systems and indoor wireless continue to boom.

It’s a high-level list, but you get the idea, there is a lot of work and deployment happening. 

This means that there is so much work that it’s slowly turning into a GC market and not the carriers market.

The GCs will be demanding higher money and assurances that they will get paid. All those GCs that got screwed over in years past now have the opportunity to pick and choose work. They can turn work down.

All the carriers see growth. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Adding DISH to the mix can only help.

With the slow growth of mmwave for home and small business internet solution, the work could last more than 3 years. 

Most companies are now expecting to see deployments last 4 or more years. When looking at over 1,000 sites, it makes sense. They take a long time. 

The workforce is mostly physical, site work, where someone has to be at the site. This can not be outsourced to software, India, or anywhere else. It has to be done at the site.

Most people don’t get what needs to be done, so let me lay out a high-level list of what happens at the site when upgrading or even adding a new band to a site.

  • Site acquisition – this could be permitting, A&E drawings, leasing, structural studies, tower loading, mount loading, and so on. This is not only for towers but rooftops and poles.
  • Structural mods as needed prior to adding anything new. Again, towers, rooftops, and poles.
  • Backhaul needs to be ordered, provisioned, installed, and preferably tested prior to the installation. This sounds straightforward, but again, fiber can take months.
  • Power may need to be upgraded at the site or a new service installed. This may or may not take a long time. It all depends on availability and schedules. 
  • If in the city, traffic control.
  • If in the country, you need to work around weather and birds. Yes, protected birds build nests and could delay a build by months.
  • Then, the OEM has to deliver the equipment to the warehouse where it will be kitted with OEM and associate materials. This adds a lot of cost and possible delays to the build.
  • Then, it has to be shipped to an in-market warehouse or picked up by the tower crew.
  • Then, a PM arranges access to the site, for the crew, with a NOC, for engineering somewhere to create a site configuration file, and possible e911 testing and RF testing.
  • Then, the actual installation. Yes, finally, the tower crew installed the hardware on the tower/pole/rooftop, and then in the shelter or cabinet. 
  • Let’s not forget all the work on the ground. Routers need to be installed and configured. The BBUs, fiber jumpers, grounding, and so on. All this needs to be installed.
  • Then the equipment is powered up, commissioned, and integrated. Usually, at the site, someone has to wire everything, then power it up. This is more than you think. You have multiple rectifiers, battery strings, grounding, power distribution panels, and more.
  • Then you have to have the equipment commissioned. This is done onsite is being automated whereas years ago an engineer did it, now the tower crew is being asked to do this with new equipment.
  • Then, the integration of everything. This is usually done when the equipment is connected to the backhaul and talking to the core. Then, generally, an NOC somewhere does it. Often offshore to the USA. 
  • Then, the site should be up and tested. RF and e911 and KPI testing.
  • Then, if all goes well, you turn the site up. Optimization may happen over time. 

I am sure I made it look too easy, but this process could take over a year. There are delays everywhere and there is something that prevents you from using the site. maybe no backhaul can be run there, maybe no power can be added, maybe the landlord wants crazy money, maybe it needs a new structure that is cost-prohibitive. 

The T-Mobile and Sprint merger, within the companies:

This is a broad term, isn’t it? Job creation for whom?

For the Sprint workers? I don’t know, they probably see what is going to happen.

For the T-Mobile workers? They see the writing on the wall. 

For both companies, downsizing is inevitable. They will reduce the workforce. It makes sense to reduce duplication of services. 

I hate to see anyone lose their job that doesn’t deserve it. I think most of us have been laid off at some point in our lives. As you get older, it’s more likely that they will “downsize” you.

Oh sure, they all say they don’t discriminate against older workers, but we all know better. They do!

We all know they say it’s to save the company. I mean the investors love when companies downsize, move jobs to India and China, and see the company save money. That’s the name of the game and the US government has been paving the way for years. They made it easier and gave tax breaks to companies that moved manufacturing to China. 

Kudos to all the congressmen and senators that made that happen. Way to show the American worker you love them. Hypocrites!

All the same, I get that there will be a reduction in the actual company workforce. This is what happens in mergers. 

Both companies have been downsizing for years using technology to their benefit. They use virtual workers, rely on overseas workers who are much cheaper to do more and more. 

The business side of it makes sense and they are saving money.

Now, with the merger, the workforce will decline even more. 

Sorry folks, but the process probably has more to do with your specific job and talent. Good people will be let go, I’m so sorry. I hope you get a good severance package. The good news is there are more jobs outside of the carriers opening up daily.

Many people will hold on. Kudos to you!

The good news is that DISH should be hiring. It is a shame that Sprint can’t just move workers over directly. I know, it’s not that easy, but think about how many should be able to transition to DISH. It makes sense, especially for engineers and techs.

Why not? DISH should have new openings today if they are serious about the build. These people can be key in network planning and installations. 

Unfortunately, when I look at the history of DISH, they will wait or outsource all that they can. They may try to use their DISH satellite installers. They will look at the cheapest way to go. 

They will get what they pay for, then DISH may truly emulate Sprint. 

Outside the companies:

Here is where the boon will be, at least over the next 5 years or so. 

We already see it with the growth of Firstnet, the upgrading of networks to 5G, the demand for more bandwidth. 

Fieldwork is taking off. There is a shortage of tower crews. There is growth everywhere.

Unfortunately, a lot of profit has been sucked out of the work but that may be changing as demand goes up. 

They will need to do audits, confirm what’s at the sites, and then plan for consolidation. This will take time but chances are good they did most of this. 

T-Mobile probably has some type of plan in place. 

Sprint has to give spectrum over to DISH, I am not sure if DISH will try to get any sites or equipment. That would seem to help, but maybe it would be a step backward, I am not sure. 

This is all work that will need to be done over the next few years. Consolidation will take planning and time but it will keep the industry busy for years.

Not to mention the ongoing work they both have with the massive MIMO deployment and rolling out nationwide 600MHz. That along with 5G upgrades will continue to overload workers for years.

In addition to tower work;

We will have the other systems that will continuously be upgraded. 

Small cells, or maybe CRAN in today’s world. A form of oDAS outside will become more and more prevalent across the USA. 

The outdoor small cell will be deployed in CBRS, it makes sense, but the carriers will continue to roll out CRAN with radio heads everywhere it makes sense. They need the capacity and loading to match towers. Most normal small cells won’t cut it. 

Indoor systems also will be upgraded. This is going to continue as new spectrum comes out and indoor data demands go up. The work on DAS and indoor small cell systems will continue to pull in more and more work for years to come. 

I was hoping some type of indoor mmwave would be happening because it makes sense to have massive broadbands indoors, but that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. 

I can’t believe it’s not but the carriers must have obvious problems with that spectrum.

Gamechangers:

A few things that will increase demand are the CBRS and CRAN.

CRAN

CRAN is where the carriers use fiber to run all the radio heads back to a central BBU hotel, just like DAS systems. You can get all the features of a macro sector in one radio head. It can do a lot more than a small cell does outdoors or in large venues, it makes sense because of loading and capacity. 

CRAN is going to be everywhere very soon.

CBRS

CBRS is another player. Everyone is looking at building a private LTE system that has a migration path to 5G. When I say everyone, let me be clear.

The utilities are looking at this to replace legacy WiMAX systems. They want power and throughput in a lightly licensed system. It’s secure and powerful.

Cities are looking at the same thing. A type of backhaul that is very secure and that can grow. They can roll out small cells to poles and use them for control and backhaul. 

New players like manufacturing, self-driving mining, and other ideas will roll out across the world. 

Then there are all the very small carriers that finally have a way into the industry. The obstacle of billion-dollar licenses is no longer there. They have an avenue to get into the industry.

I see this as good news for the big carriers. Suddenly they can have isolated roaming agreements with very local microcarriers that will build areas where they don’t deem profitable. 

This could be in rural areas, urban underserved areas, and even indoors, like large buildings or private enterprise systems. It just makes so much sense to me.

Let the small guys build their networks and then the carriers can take advantage of the additional coverage. 

5G

The thing is, 5G will continue to roll out for years. It will not go away soon. It is going to change and morph. Then when it does roll out, guess what, we have to dismantle 4G.

That’s right, about 5 years from now some of the 4G LTE systems will be pulled. This lifecycle is almost as fast as Wi-Fi. The only thing is, these systems cost way more than Wi-Fi does.

We have to make sure we understand how to prepare for 5G. The fixed wireless systems, FWA, will eventually start to grow. 

Someday, CBRS will have 5G capability, then that will have to be upgraded.

We may see all mobile systems roll to 5G, unfortunately, it may take all new equipment. 

When I see 5G growth, it seems to be perpetual. It also not only grows at the site, but the backhaul, routers, devices, and core will evolve. 

5G will help the industry grow and change end to end.

 

Wade’s books are on Amazon, go to https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00E5GY4NE.

 

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