DigitalBridge CEO says immigration would ease telecom worker shortage

At the Technology Policy Institute’s annual Aspen Forum in August, DigitalBridge CEO Marc Ganzi joined TPI President Scott Wallsten for a chat. According to a transcript provided to Fierce Telecom, Ganzi was very forthright in talking about a couple of hot topics. He addressed the elephant in the room in regard to the worker shortage that’s affecting telecom infrastructure deployment. And he discussed whether fiber is really a future-proof technology. 

DigitalBridge is an investment company, whose U.S. assets include about 368,000 miles of fiber, about 250,000 macro cell sites and about 48,000 small cells. Globally, it owns nearly 450 data centers. It owns 29 companies around the world with a total of about 29,000 employees.

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At the Aspen conference, Ganzi said, “Our businesses are incredibly dynamic at the moment. I think on the president's initiative around broadband deployment, it's a bold, big swing.”

But he said there’s a huge labor shortage right now. Ironically, much of the money that will flow to the telecom industry to deploy broadband will come from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The question is: Do Americans need jobs right now?

“Our biggest problem, I can't get people back to work,” Ganzi said. “I can't get people to micro-trench ditches. I can't get people to climb poles. I can't get people to build cell towers fast enough. We have a massive labor shortage issue. Supply chains are correcting themselves, but our biggest challenge today is keeping up with customer demand.”

And he talked about the usual solutions such as training more people and tapping veterans. But Wallsten pointedly asked a question that others seem too afraid to ask: Is it time to allow more immigration to the U.S.?

Ganzi said it’s not a popular idea, unfortunately. “Look, immigration can be good,” he said. “I mean, we've sourced a lot of great RF engineers from places like India and the Middle East where they're highly educated, they're vastly underpaid in their countries. Look: if Americans aren't going to take those jobs, then we need, you know, next woman up or next man up. I don't think our economy can sit and wait. We've had some of those challenges and immigration's one possible lever that we have.”

Fiber gets old

Aside from the worker shortage, Ganzi talked about the true "future-proofing" of fiber.

DigitalBridge owns Zayo, and he said Zayo was in the midst of redesigning and updating some of its long-haul infrastructure, which is old.

“Many of our fiber infrastructure now is coming up on 23 to 25 years old,” said Ganzi. “Believe it or not, fiber does have a finite life to it.”

Wallsten said, “So, hold on a second. The Fiber Broadband Association does a lot to tell us that you need fiber to future-proof. I mean, that you're telling us that it has a limited lifespan?”

“Well it does because physically it's glass, and it ultimately ages and the casing that's on the outside of it sometimes ages as well,” said Ganzi. “You get acts of God, you get, you know s--t happens. It's a living, breathing network. Some of the infrastructure that was put in place, some of the long-haul infrastructure that's really vital to our economy was put in place in the, you know, in the 90s and early 2000s. Just like a cell tower has a useful life of 25 years. Most people don't know this, but sub-oceanic cables actually dissipate over 25 years.”

He said Zayo is overlaying new conduit on long-haul and sub-oceanic routes, investing $200 million in capex every year back into the network. “We had a major network fortification program we put in place that we didn't run around telling investors that had to happen, but it is essential for, to stay at Five-Nine standards. You've got to keep reinvesting in the network.”