Mears cautions fiber hopefuls to engage construction firms early

Mears Broadband is a division of Mears Group, a subsidiary of Quanta Services that provides construction services for fiber broadband deployment projects. Mears Broadband President Trent Edwards says the construction costs for a fiber deployment will account for about 70% of the total deployment cost.

He said that percentage has been historically true and continues to be accurate as scores of companies gear up for Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) funds that will support new fiber projects across the U.S.

Asked if many newcomers to the fiber broadband space are aware of the 70% cost, Edwards said, “not really.”

He also warns that it’s really important to engage with construction companies such as Mears early to ensure that projects stay on schedule and on budget.

Other major construction companies in the broadband space include MasTec, Dycom, Henkels & McCoy, Michaels and Black & Veatch. And then there are hundreds of smaller regional and local contractors that act as subcontractors for the big construction companies.

Edwards said there are a lot of people getting involved in this “Great Build” that is about to take place that have never historically been involved in building broadband networks. Among the novices, he includes many of the folks who have only recently been placed in roles at state broadband offices, along with the small staffs at local permitting offices who may not realize what’s about to hit them.

The biggest reason many areas in the U.S. remain unserved or underserved by broadband until now is because private companies couldn’t make a business case to reach these areas. And even though BEAD funds will help subsidize that business case and private equity companies also want to invest, companies will still want to crunch all the numbers to make sure they get a decent return on their investments.

Clusters (the good kind)

Edwards said “clustering” of small towns and cities in a locale can help with the business model. “Historically, we haven’t seen a lot of cooperation because of competing interests,” he said. “But there’s an opportunity for municipal areas to come together in a cluster approach I think makes a lot of sense.”

Asked if he expects to see a lot of municipalities building fiber networks, Edwards said, “I would say they absolutely will. I think you will see overbuilding these areas. I think it’s an opportunity for the municipalities.”

Another creative way that fiber can be brought to some unserved — especially urban areas — is when a company builds an open access network and then leases access to that network to other companies.

Supply chain

In June the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) will issue its rules related to Buy America requirements for BEAD funding. Edwards said he is not concerned about the Buy America requirements, having confidence that Mears has set up contracts far in advance for the materials it might need. “Being a part of Quanta, we have large buying capacity on our balance sheets,” he said.

Having enough labor is a different matter.

“I’m absolutely concerned about labor,” said Edwards. “That’s an issue. The workforce that’s currently out there it’s obviously going through its maturation. It’s not sexy work. We’re spending a lot of time recruiting and training. That’s our answer, and we think that should be everybody’s answer.”

He said some jobs, such as entry-level trench digging, don’t require a lot of training. But other roles require the employee to understand how to read complex maps showing all the existing underground facilities. And they must learn skills to operate drills and other kinds of machines. Those roles can take months of training.

Mears’ parent company Quanta runs a dedicated 2,200-acre campus in Texas for training of telecommunications personnel.