Comcast, Liberty Global execs flag skills gap as ‘existential’ upgrades loom

SCTE CABLE-TEC EXPO – Plenty of noise has been made about a looming shortage of telecom workers in the U.S. and across the globe as billions in public and private investments pour into the broadband space. But during a keynote presentation, the CEOs of Comcast Cable and Liberty Global noted they’re not just facing a labor shortfall, but a gap in the number of workers with the skills needed to take their networks to the next level.

Liberty Global CEO Michael Fries said upgrading its networks in Europe – whether with fiber or DOCSIS technology – is not just some long-term goal but “today’s problem” and one that is very much a question of “life or death.” He explained that in Europe, “by 2025, 2026, nearly 100% of our markets will be overbuilt with fiber from somebody else.” Liberty Global’s holdings include assets in Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Switzerland and the U.K. It also has plans for a fiber joint venture in Germany.

In order to stay in the game, he said Liberty Global is hustling to upgrade its networks. This will primarily be done with fiber, with Fries stating that within five to six years the vast majority of the 30 million homes it reaches today with HFC will be covered by fiber. That will notably include the network of Liberty Global subsidiary Virgin Media O2 in the U.K. That said, he noted it still plans to use DOCSIS 3.0 and 4.0 in certain markets where it is cost prohibitive to build fiber.

Here in the U.S., Comcast Cable CEO David Watson said it’s facing a competitive environment “that’s never been more feisty.” However, he pointed to cable operators’ massive scale as a key advantage in the network battles ahead as it forges a path toward symmetrical multi-gig speeds with DOCSIS 4.0. “The advantage cable has is this wonderful ubiquitous network,” he said.

As Comcast works toward a goal of deploying DOCSIS 4.0 next year, Watson said its network is evolving to become increasingly software-centric. And so, in addition to finding folks to help expand its network to new areas through edge outs, he noted Comcast is now having to look for employees with a new skillset.

“As we change the network, or big components of the network, to virtualize and as we add more capability it does require people to get trained up on how to do this and how to manage a virtualized network,” he said. “There are more software elements than ever in terms of how we manage the digital capabilities.”  

Similarly, Fries stated Liberty Global was having trouble finding the right people for forward-looking tasks.

“When it comes to the core things we do everyday – whether it’s upgrading our networks or building 5G – these things we can find, we think there’s not a talent gap. It’s the things that we want to do,” he said, specifically calling out a need for data experts. “We’re finding it hard to find people who can help us get into new revenue streams, new opportunities.”

Despite the looming challenges, both executives said there’s plenty of runway for growth. “Hold on to your hats, because broadband still has a lot of life in it,” Watson concluded.