An industry short on enthusiasm: Where are all the fiber technicians?

The federal government has been trumpeting its efforts to expand access to high-speed internet service for underserved areas across the U.S, namely through $42.5 billion in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding. But in BEAD’s shadow stands another obstacle to closing the digital divide: a massive shortage of fiber technicians. 

Flume Internet CEO Prashanth Vijay put a salient reason for that shortage simply enough. “There's just not much enthusiasm to go and like… dig a trench,” he told Fierce Telecom.

Flume Internet is a fiber provider of gigabit services that started in New York City and has since expanded to Los Angeles and Philadelphia (with plans to reach areas of Connecticut.) The company was born from an opportunity Vijay and his co-founder, Brandon Gibson, saw to build dark fiber and open access-based networks for lower-income multifamily homes.

“There is lots of demand,” Vijay said. “Property owners are finally experimenting with offering their own internet, bringing in new providers to build shared use infrastructure, so we try and take advantage of all those trends and build our own optical networks in a variety of markets.”

But even with demand for fiber surging, the shortage of technicians threatens to perpetuate the digital divide as ISPs struggle to afford, hire and train vetted workers.

The Government Accountability Office estimated that around 34,000 workers might be needed this year to support the government’s broadband-expansion programs, depending on ever-changing project timelines. Some ISPs have even offered hiring bonuses up to $5,000 for technicians in high-need markets.

Construction crews are often booked up months in advance, Vijay said. Crews that are available within reach can require a large volume of work to schedule, and smaller ISPs like Flume don't consistently have the “volume or leverage” to secure their time.

“This issue of alignment and aligning calendars between crews that are available in your city, that have the skill set you need at the time you need it, is something that a lot of ISPs are having issues with,” Vijay added.

Competition gets even tougher considering incumbent ISPs use rate cards and generally pay exceedingly high prices for contracted work. For that reason, there are certain tasks in the fiber world that are asymmetrically priced, Vijay noted, with jobs like fusion splicing and building risers in multi-family buildings more expensive than others.

“For those type of tasks you'll find a huge spread on the cost based on who has access to talent and who doesn't,” he said. “I do think labor and this type of construction should be a free market. If you're a construction crew, and you can charge 2x because a bunch of people want your service, that's a pretty solid deal. Maybe we should all go start construction companies.”

For smaller ISPs, that reality just means they must create alternate channels to find skilled workers, such as training programs. Flume has hired a couple of “extremely senior construction leaders in-house who've done the gamut of things,” Vijay said, “and we go out and try and train folks, because that's just easier than competing with that sort of time-based schedule and cost system with the larger construction shops.”

Training (and motivating) fiber technicians

Contrary to what the industry’s shortage might imply, fiber technicians often have a relatively short training period and are compensated well.

Vijay said the on-ramp period to learn new skills is “shorter than most people think… probably six, eight weeks.” Most training happens in the field through doing installations and gaining experience across different types of sites.

Flume has worked with Block Power, a Brooklyn-based HVAC contractor that created the Civilian Climate Corps program, to train locals who are open to work and volunteer on fiber build outs. Through that program the company has had several technicians do “hundreds of installs” in New York, Vijay said.

Ultimately, the goal for Flume with these types of programs is to take trainees from contract work to becoming full-time, in-house technicians. But the catch, Vijay said, is that Flume goes through “lots” of trainees to find the several who are motivated enough to work full time.

“There's generally a lack of motivation to go work on infrastructure issues and build stuff out. And they're actually extremely well-paying jobs,” he added, “The market is there, which is the interesting part. If you're doing fiber jobs, you're probably making $200,000 a year in certain cities.”

Vijay believes the solution to the fiber industry’s motivation problem is at the educational level, and probably “beyond the scope of Flume or the telecom industry.”

Most likely, it will be up to government funding to keep training programs alive, Vijay said. He expects “a lot” of BEAD funding will be spent on labor, but with each state determining labor requirements for fiber build outs, he isn’t sure how exactly that will play out for a small ISP like Flume – an “unnerving thought.”

“There's just a lot of work to be done,” Vijay said. “But I think there's ways to really incentivize the training side of it and hiring to full time, even for incumbents. If more of those programs can keep getting funded and communicated to the industry in a way we can understand and work with, that's a good solution in our book.”