The wireless infrastructure business is ready for yet another takeoff with the development of 5G wireless communications. The possibilities of smart cities, with devices communicating seamlessly, autonomous vehicles and constant communication, are starting to look like today’s reality. However, a lot of network development has to happen before society can enjoy the latest technology developed because of 5G.
It seems far-fetched to think that the City of Orlando, Florida, is in the process of developing a plan to build a vertiport for flying taxis by 2025. It’s true. Orlando is a city of the future, for certain. The city’s vertiport will be the first of its kind in the United States.
With all the possibilities that 5G brings, challenges remain that smaller businesses in the wireless infrastructure contracting world must face. The challenges are real. All wireless contractors have had to deal downward price pressure and fixed matrix pricing.
Large wireless communications carriers that participated in the spectrum auctions of 2020 and 2021 stand to make record profits from 5G. They have been investing billions in anticipation. With multiple devices now communicating device-to-device instead of device-to-user, each customer will have five or more devices, always moving data. This reality only stands to place record profits in the hands of the major carriers. Dish Network, an up-and-coming carrier, is coming fast. The added competition that Dish Network represents is exactly what the carrier market needs.
It is great to see FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr touring the country, visiting wireless infrastructure contractors’ facilities and attending industry events. This type of cooperation between the public sector and the private sector is necessary to continue positive progress in deploying 5G. The United States absolutely must be the first in the world to have this technology nationwide. The tower industry is key to making that happen. Every major cell carrier now highlights the tower climber in their commercials.
Nevertheless, even in the future, macro sites still will be required. In an industry that employs tens of thousands of tower technicians, a large percentage of them have never stacked a tower before. Stacking towers has become a lost trade, and contractors that can do it well are in high demand. What’s also in high demand is more tower technicians. NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association recently completed and released a study in which it estimate more than 10,000 tower technicians are needed to keep pace with bringing the 5G networks into reality. TIRAP and community college program development is the long-term way to make the tower technician job into a career position. These apprenticeship programs bring stability to an industry that is in high demand. They guarantee adequate training through NWSA. Men and women willing to put in the work will be rewarded handsomely.
Although the workforce seems to be growing, 5G wireless communications technology itself can come into question. Which technology is going to stick? Millimeter-wave (mmWave) communications is great technology, but it has reach limitations. In rural America, it will take years, if not decades, to install a site every 5 miles or less to saturate the area with mmWave coverage. C-band communications could be better, or perhaps the better potential lies in some spectrum to that will be auctioned in the future.
Federal funding is an important consideration. Do we want the federal government to invest in communications infrastructure, just as it invests in bridges and roads? Do we want more prevailing-wage jobs for the tower technicians? If federal money is used to develop this highly needed infrastructure, then, yes, our tower technicians will see a hefty pay raise, thanks to the Davis Bacon Act.
States in the central United States and in the South should immediately revisit the ironworker wages. In some cases, these wage determinations are less than what a tower technician would make, on a typical day. Legislators in those states should be pushing for adequate wages in their states to match the difficult inflation and cost-of-living increases that have occurred since January 2021.
We cannot expect Washington to throw billions of dollars of spending at wireless infrastructure and expect it to take off on its own. All state and local jurisdictions need to be on board. For that, public policy generally should favor the development of wireless infrastructure. This partiality includes limiting local jurisdictions from assessing fees or dragging out progress with extensive negotiation with network developers.
Broadband spending has been a buzz topic in Washington during the past several months. However, what money has been spent mostly is going to fiber underground, not wireless. There must be significant investment in lower-population states in wireless broadband infrastructure. It simply is not feasible to bring fiber underground to every house in mountainous areas.
Another direction wireless infrastructure is heading is to a place of more structured regulation. Let’s face it, climbing and working on towers is dangerous work. OSHA knows it. What they might not yet fully realize is that it requires a lot of training and expense to employ and to retain good tower technicians. With the best practices document A10.48 now in public view, wireless infrastructure contractors have a go-to document to raise the bar, and OSHA has a way to see that the tower industry isn’t just a bunch of cowboys wearing tree-climber belts.
With OSHA considering a proposed rule for work on communication towers, a separate OSHA standard or law would upset the work that has been put into the A10.48 document, an industry-consensus, best-practices document. A new OSHA rule would severely complicate the way our tower technicians now are trained. The NWSA has provided a great way for companies to standardize training. NWSA closely follows the A10.48 standard, as it rightly should. What if all that goes away? This would not get us to having smart cities any faster.
Energy consumption should be considered, when looking at which direction 5G wireless infrastructure will take in the future. We are all looking for ways to conserve, to lessen our ecological footprint. It seems as though we may not be looking as closely at the energy needs of 5G equipment. Some studies have indicated that 5G is more efficient than 4G per data unit. Nevertheless, the number of data units to be moved is far and away more, with 5G.
At the AGL Virtual Summit in September, a panel discussion mentioned that one autonomous vehicle produces 3,000 times the data of all the users of Twitter in a single day. When thinking of data transfer of 5G and energy consumption, this relates to the muscle car era of the 1970s. Auto engineers figured out how to make cars faster, and gas consumption wasn’t a problem — until it was. Let’s not repeat that mistake with this technology. 5G network developers should consider implementing clean energy at tower sites, by using solar or wind energy, at least to put back as much power to the grid as a tower site uses. Let’s see a race to net metering, as well as the race to 5G deployment.
Andrew Van Roekel is a sales executive with Tower Systems, a tower construction and maintenance company with locations in Watertown, South Dakota; Winter Park, Florida; and Angle Inslet, Minnesota. His email address is [email protected].