The fiber industry is as busy as I have ever seen it, and it’s about to get even busier. The cellular carriers, particularly Verizon are actively building fiber to reach small cell sites. The cable companies are building a significant amount of fiber, particularly Altice which is upgrading to FTTP. The FCC is going to award $9 billion in 2020 for the 5G Fund grant program, much which will go for fiber to reach rural cell sites. The FCC will be awarding $16.4 billion in 2020 for RDOF grants to build rural broadband infrastructure. There are state broadband grant programs in many states providing funds to help with rural broadband projects. Independent telephone companies are still building rural fiber to meet their ACAM responsibilities. Electric coops all over the country are jumping into the fiber business. Finally, there are dozens of active fiber overbuilders building into new markets.
All of this fiber activity is going to mean a shortfall of industry resources of all kinds. I’ve already witnessed construction delays in projects this year due to resource shortages and I fear delays will increase in 2020 and beyond. Following is a list of the industry resources that I think will be in short demand or under stress, meaning that some fiber projects will have problems.
Construction Crews. I’ve worked with several projects this year that had problems finding enough construction crews. It’s not hard to imagine a shortfall of underground boring crews, aerial construction crews, or splicers as the industry gets busier. Maybe even more troubling will be a shortage of good fiber project managers. As we’ve seen in busy markets in the past, crew shortages are likely to result in higher construction labor rates.
Engineers. Almost every engineering company I know is already working at nearly full capacity. It won’t be surprising within a year to see engineering firms being selective about who they will work for.
Fiber and Fiber Components. I saw a few projects get slowed down this year due to backlogs of fiber cable and various components like handholes. I can recall worse shortages, but I suspect that we will soon not take the normal delivery intervals in the supply chain for granted.
Pole Attachment Processing. Many of the big pole owners, like commercial electric companies, say they are swamped with pole attachment requests. It will be interesting to see if One Touch Make Ready helps to relive the work pressure, or if it adds to the stress at utilities as they try to meet tighter time frames.
Rights-of-Way / Permits. I’ve already seen a few railroad crossings take longer than normal, with the railroads complaining that they are swamped with crossing requests. Expect the same thing for bridges and interstate underpasses. Expect the Department of Transportation in some states to be slow in issuing permits to build on state highways.
Grant Writers. You might assume that anybody can write a grant, but the specialists who write winning grant proposals for fiber projects are definitely a limited resource.
Consultants. Every consultant I know has a limited capacity in terms of the number of big projects like feasibility studies that they can tackle at the same time. I know I’m already being selective about taking on new work and I expect others are doing the same.
Loan Applications. After the stimulus broadband grants were awarded, the loan application backlog at the RUS grew to 18 months, meaning an applicant had to wait that long before the RUS even looked at an application. Expect the RUS backlogs and of other lenders to start growing again with the RDOF grant awards.
Banking. I can remember a few times during my career when banks like CoBank cut back on issuing new loans. All banks have a natural lending limit and I’m not sure that the normal industry banking institutions – the RUS, CoBank, and RTFC – can collectively float the dollar volume of new loans needed to support the RDOF program, let alone the many other broadband projects that are seeking funding.
All of these potential resource shortages portend problems for anybody building fiber. It’s hard to imagine a fiber project of any size that isn’t going to hit by at least a few of these delays. I’m sure I’ll hear of a few cases where these delays will be crippling. I think anybody planning to build fiber needs to anticipate delays and build them into their schedule because delays cost time, and time costs money.