I foresee a coming shortage of trained technicians to work with fiber optics networks. This shortfall has come about for a few reasons. One reason is due to the labor practices of some of the biggest owners of fiber networks like AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, and Frontier. All of the big telcos have been downsizing technical staff for various reasons. Much of it has to do with the phasing out of traditional copper networks. The technical staff of the telcos have been systematically downsized for well over a decade, and in doing so these companies have not been hiring many new technicians, but rather training existing copper technicians to become fiber technicians. This has an impact on the whole industry since in the past, many of the trained technicians working throughout the industry began their careers at the big telcos. That funnel of newly trained technicians has dried up compared to the past.
The other reason for a shortage of trained telecom technicians is the recent explosion of new fiber construction. Companies everywhere are building fiber networks. The big carriers have been investing heavily in fiber. For example, over the past four years, AT&T built fiber to pass over 12 million homes and businesses. Verizon has been building fiber across the country to provide fiber to its cellular towers – including small cell sites that are scattered throughout most urban areas. Verizon says it also plans to pass 30 million homes with what is essentially fiber-to-the-curb technology using wireless loops.
There is also a huge amount of fiber being built by smaller companies. The FCC’s ACAM program from the Universal Service Fund spurred the construction of rural fiber in areas served by small telephone companies and cooperatives. Electric cooperatives have joined the fray in many rural markets. Various independent fiber overbuilders have been building fiber in small towns and in a few urban markets of the country.
The FCC is helping to fuel the demand for fiber construction. For example, they will soon be awarding the two biggest telecom grant programs ever. In October the FCC will hold a reverse auction to award $16.4 billion to construct rural broadband networks over the next six years. Another $4 billion will be awarded from that program next year. The FCC will also be awarding $9 billion for the 5G Fund, and much of that money will be used to build fiber networks to beef up rural cellular coverage. Meanwhile, a majority of states now have broadband grant programs, and the level of funding to these programs is increasing due to the recognition during the pandemic that millions of students don’t have access to broadband at their homes.
All of this fiber construction has already resulted in a recent shortage in trained fiber technicians needed for fiber construction. Almost all of the ISPs I’m working with are seeing increased bids for the labor cost of fiber construction. It’s becoming clear that the demand for trained construction crews is outpacing the number of available construction crews nationwide. Already in 2020, we don’t have enough trained fiber technicians to meet the demand for fiber construction – and this is going to get worse.
But construction is only half the story. We also need fiber technicians to maintain and operate fiber networks after they are constructed. Operational fiber networks require fiber technicians in trucks as well as electronics technicians to connect customers to fiber, respond to trouble calls, and maintain the network. All of the billions being poured into building fiber networks will require an army of new technicians to maintain and service the new networks.
The US is not equipped to easily double the number of fiber technicians over the next decade – but we’re going to have to find a way to do that. There are some formal training programs for fiber technicians, mostly being done by trade schools or technical colleges that sponsor apprenticeship programs for technicians for the CFOT or CPCT certification process. But the majority of fiber technicians are trained on the job by starting as hands-on journeymen.
The bottom line is that this is a growing field for people looking for a career. The high demand for technicians is going to drive up salaries, particularly for well-trained technicians. Unfortunately, this kind of shortage also means that the cost of building fiber is going to increase due to the excess of demand over supply for qualified technicians.