Tillman exec touches upon open access landscape, fiber workforce

The U.S. Broadband Summit is fast approaching and, unsurprisingly, a key discussion point will be challenges in fiber deployment.

Zac Cronauer, technical project manager at Tillman FiberCo and one of the speakers at the event, said much of his work focuses on resolving those challenges and “understanding fiber economics,” such as where to build, where not to build, the different types of demographics and verticals as well as “the cost analysis around all that.”

Tillman is an open access fiber operator that snagged $500 million in private equity funding to build out its network in five states. T-Mobile recently confirmed it’s working with Tillman in Pinellas County, Florida.

Cronauer told Fierce the open access landscape is “changing dramatically.”

“I think you’re going to start to see more proponents of it as you start to see fiber getting rolled out more and more,” he said, noting open access can drive competition “in a good way.”

Indeed, the open access market has picked up. Other players in the space include UTOPIA Fiber, SiFi Networks and Ubiquity. Even AT&T is eyeing open access fiber in its Gigapower joint venture with BlackRock Alternatives.

For Tillman’s part, Cronauer said it’s targeting a mix of rural and suburban areas “as well as downtowns that are underserved,” though he didn’t go into specifics of which markets exactly.

“The biggest thing that you want to focus on when building fiber is feeding [it] to the underserved,” he added. “In our case, or in the fiber world’s case, a lot of that is you know, is there another fiber provider or not?”

Asked if there are any specific challenges open access providers face compared to regular ISPs, Cronauer said many obstacles “remain the same,” related to permitting, construction and labor.

What’s “probably the hardest thing” is getting tenants to join the network. But from his perspective, companies building open access fiber aren’t having trouble on that front.

“Whoever has delved into open access has had a lot of success finding those tenants, so I really don’t see that as something that’s a roadblock or a barrier to build,” said Cronauer.

He also touched upon the state of the broadband workforce and training fiber technicians.

“What I love about our industry specifically, with fiber deployments now, is we’re getting to a lot of ease of use,” he said. “The technology is innovating and advancing to a point where it’s not taking so long for technicians to be able to learn.”

Cronauer added fiber is easier to work with “in the sense of reading signal, chasing signal, troubleshooting signal,” but at the same it’s harder to work with “because it’s glass.”

“It’s very fragile in that sense, but it’s robust and it’s a solution,” he said. “So you’re definitely going to need on-the-job training but I think a lot of what we’re going to see – whether it’s the SCTE or FBA – is these hybrid technicians that are willing to do it all. And I think that’s what we’re going to need moving forward in the next 10-15 years.”

Cronauer, along with execs from All Points Broadband, Lumos, Visionary Broadband and Vivacity, will discuss deployment challenges and fiber economics at a U.S. Broadband Summit panel. Check out the full agenda here.