Broadband providers have a people problem on their hands

There’s plenty of focus on how much supply chain disruptions will slow fiber and cable expansions in the U.S., but labor shortages are quickly emerging as another critical issue which could limit broadband deployments.

Jim Capuano, CEO of Ohio-based operator Horizon, told Fierce that if supply chain is problem 1A then workforce issues would be ranked right alongside those as concern 1B.

Horizon is a 125-year old business with an ILEC unit serving residential customers and a CLEC unit which provides enterprise fiber. In recent years, the company has begun using its middle mile fiber to branch out with fiber-to-the-home deployments. To date it has announced or initiated projects in several Ohio markets, including Circleville, Greenfield, Washington Court House, Lancaster, Zanesville, Athens, Logan, Johnstown and Hillsboro. It competes with AT&T, Frontier Communications and large cable imcumbents.

Capuano said in 2022, the operator is looking to deploy fiber to around 11,000 passings within its ILEC footprint, which will raise its fiber coverage to around 50% of its territory. It’s also eyeing greenfield deployments to around 30,000 locations. In 2023 it’s looking to add at least another 30,000 passings and ramp from there to around 100,000 passings per year. He called the latter figure a “solid target” and said 200,000 passings in a year would be its “aspirational goal.”

While the operator has been hustling to get its supply chain affairs in order, Capuano flagged workforce as a major problem looming on the horizon.

“I think the harder part is honestly the construction crews. The number of contractors you need to build out networks of any size, and the labor markets as they are…I think that’s really going to be the limiting factor for many of us as to how much we can build,” he said.

Capuano isn’t alone in highlighting this problem. Last week at a MoffettNathanson investor conference, Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge warned “there is no labor pool there. For all the construction that has to be done, there is no skilled labor force that’s currently out there doing it that can be repurposed. It has to be built and trained.”

"It's going to be challenging," he continued. “There is no labor force anywhere for any jobs...We have thousands of unfilled positions.”

Frontier also recently pointed to labor as a key hurdle to deployments, and AT&T hinted at its own concerns on that front when it announced a new training program for fiber workers alongside Corning last month.

At the time, AT&T executive Jeff Luong told Fierce it’s “never easy to bring on people and grow the pool of resources” to fuel large builds and noted the number of operators undertaking massive expansion projects is only exacerbating the problem.

Horizon’s Capuano said the situation is reminiscent of what was happening in the market in 1998-2000, when the industry was scrambling to bring on technicians with any sort of basic computer experience to help run network operations centers. But now, the problem is a little different, he added.

“It’s not really about aptitude anymore, we just flat out have a shortage of people. I don’t know there’s enough people in the country to support the growth we have right now,” Capuano stated. “I’m really not sure how this gets solved. There’s a lot of great jobs out there, it's just we don’t have people for them.”