Can plug-and-play fiber tech bridge the broadband labor shortage?

As more fiber rollouts are announced across the U.S., the broadband industry is facing a looming problem: finding enough workers to actually deploy the tens of millions of new passings they’ve promised. Government statistics show the number of telecommunications workers has dropped drastically over the past decade and that figure isn’t expected to rebound anytime soon. But plug-and-play fiber installation technology could help alleviate the workforce crunch – at least to an extent.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of telecommunications workers in the U.S. plunged nearly 25% over the past decade, falling from 868,200 in January 2012 to 653,400 in January 2022. While that figure has since inched back up to a projected 661,500 in June, the bureau’s outlook doesn’t call for much to change through 2030.

The average growth rate for all occupations in the country by 2030 is forecast to come in just shy of 8%. In contrast, BLS data shows it expects the number of telecommunications equipment installers and repairers (except line installers) to fall 1% between 2020 and 2030. It forecast “little or no change” in the number of line installers and repairers. In the latter case, that’s because a majority of the 23,300 jobs openings projected to become available each year over the forecast period will be needed to replace workers who either change jobs or retire.

While some like the Fiber Broadband Association, AT&T and Corning are ramping efforts to train up new workers to fill the gap, others are touting the ability of plug-and-play fiber solutions to help cut back on labor needs. For instance, new fiber player Brightspeed told Fierce in April it plans to use Corning’s Pushlok cables and Evolv terminals to reduce the amount of splicing that needs to be done. By extension, that means less specialized labor.

Brightspeed COO Tom Maguire this week explained the reasoning behind its decision. “Everyone knows that there has been a shortage of outside plant techs (aka linemen) since Super Storm Sandy [in 2012] and a scarcity of skilled splicers for quite some time. Add in long lead times for things like bucket trucks and it’s pretty clear where we needed to focus our attention,” he told Fierce via email. He added that while pre-connectorized fiber has been around for quite some time, the technology was previously focused on drop wires, leaving everything else to be spliced. That’s changed with Corning’s Pushlok and Evolv solutions, he added.

Evolv with Pushlok was introduced in 2020 and has since been used for several million passings, Corning VP of Global Market Development for Carrier Networks Bob Whitman told Fierce. 

Kara Mullaley, market development manager at Corning, explained that as fiber builds move beyond urban environments into more rural areas, each splice in the distribution network is "often servicing fewer potential subscribers – meaning the splicer’s time is spent doing more prep and less value-add effort." With Corning's plug-and-play systems, though, operators can reduce the amount of time spent deploying each access point from hours to minutes, she said. 

Maguire said such systems also reduce the need for highly-trained workers which require hard-to-get bucket trucks and costly tools. Instead, Brightspeed can use other types of techs who are less expensive. Put it all together and Brightspeed expects to save both time and money. Maguire said it could see as much as 50% savings on distribution network construction costs. Longer term, it also sees the potential for future savings on maintenance with plug-and-play systems. Maguire noted that “it is a lot easier to swap out different elements when you can simply unplug the broken item and plug in the new one.”

Elsewhere, Midco and Blue Ridge Communications are among the more than 700 service provider customers in the U.S. using Clearfield’s plug-and-play products for their network rollouts.

Kevin Morgan, Clearfield’s CMO and board chairman at the Fiber Broadband Association, told Fierce there’s recently been an influx of “fresh” contractor talent with little or no experience. This means workers may not follow procedures or perhaps even install equipment improperly. But he added plug-and-play gear means these workers can be trained faster and it reduces the need for maintenance and troubleshooting.

The whole idea of going “labor light” is something Clearfield has been working toward for a long time, Morgan added. It first introduced its plug-and-play FieldShield solution in 2010, and since then the technology has also been incorporated into its FieldSmart products. Most recently, it revamped its YOURx line of outside plant terminals in 2016 to make them 100% plug-and-play, he said.

“The processes and the ways in which equipment works today is much different than it was 10 years or 20 years ago,” Morgan explained. “The benefit of going to market today for companies that are inexperienced is that it is possible to implement a plug-and-play system in the outside plant environment so you don’t have to have as many skilled workers as you did before…that didn’t even occur ten years ago. There was a lot of splicing in the network.”

But while the technology has evolved, attitudes haven’t necessarily followed across the board. Morgan said there remains “some inertia” among operators who are reluctant to change their deployment techniques. Maguire added some operators might be hesitant to add new SKUs to their supply chain given “more SKUs drives additional management, storage requirements, etc. – aka costs.”

One factor which might help overcome these hurdles is that many operators are now receiving or applying for broadband grant money that is tied to strict deployment deadlines. The need to meet those milestones has them looking for solutions which will allow them to complete rollouts better and faster, Morgan said.

He concluded overcoming the labor shortage is “achievable. It’s a matter of adopting these techniques.”