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Supply constraints and labor shortages require innovative thinking

Supply constraints and labor shortages require innovative thinking

09/ 11/ 2021

Source: ISE Magazine

As broadband demand surges, supply constraints are forcing networks to think differently.

Like many communications services providers (CSPs), Mississippi-based C Spire is on an infrastructure blitz — part of the $1 billion Fiber Fast initiative in which the company will rollout extensive 5G fiber backhaul and all-fiber Gigabit broadband services to more than 200,000 homes across Alabama and Mississippi.

Yet for all the enthusiasm about its services, C Spire is working to execute its rollout in the midst of a surge in network rollouts that pits it against equally-hungry rivals vying for a finite pool of materials and skilled labor.

Sourcing these resources has become harder than ever. Global materials shortages in the wake of COVID-driven factory shutdowns have created a scarcity of components needed for the delivery of today’s fiber networks.

Many suppliers are working with 60-week+ estimated lead times for materials and supplies, throwing CSPs’ plans — particularly those without substantial buying power — into chaos, and threatening a range of medium-term complications if they can’t figure out how to be agile in their delivery to compensate for unpredictability.

Lack of skilled labor is a handbrake for expansion plans

Despite surging demand for networks, recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures suggests that the ranks of the country’s 215,700 telecommunications equipment installers will actually decline in coming years. The number of fiber telecommunications and electrical line installers are expected to flatline over the same period.

Because many CSPs don’t have internal construction capability, over 45% of fiber deployment and management operations are being outsourced to contractors. This can deliver results, but mitigation of commercial and delivery remains a big issue — particularly in a constrained market where there is heavy competition for construction workforces. The ability to attract and retain quality contractors is just another consideration. 

Resource issues have become key blockers in the success of CSPs’ broadband and 5G network strategies. For example, Mississippi and Alabama — C Spire’s native markets — had fewer than 1,640 telecommunications installers state-wide. (Editor’s Note: According to a spring 2020 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Please use the link listed in Resources and Notes.) Maintaining the cadence of its rollout hinges on the network’s ability to engage enough skilled staff, and to source enough materials, to keep the project on track for the duration.

Investment is no longer the primary barrier

The shortage of resources has presented a Catch-22 for network providers keen to accelerate planning and deployment to take advantage of a surge in broadband network funding — which currently includes a near-term investment of $242b in federal funding and grant programs and $6.8b in state funding.

Yet this investment is tied to strict timelines and delivery milestones. And while network operators may be able to win public funding by outlining an ideal buildout scenario, competition and unpredictable supplies can easily throw those timelines out — resulting in heavy penalties due to missed deadlines.

For networks that have no internal construction capability, the decision to invest in and train hundreds of new workers is no small order and often not a viable option. Instead, a growing number of networks are turning to new automation and geospatial technologies that allow them to make much better use of the resources they do have — and to respond far more effectively when supply issues arise.

A technology-enabled approach unlocks a reduction in project and administrative overhead by automating construction, quality inspections and change management, and their respective approvals via a single version of construction truth.

A number of CSPs have already seen dramatic reductions, up to 75%, in their resource requirements after adopting one of these solutions, Render Networks’ geospatial network construction technology.

Craighead Electric Cooperative Corporation’s (CECC) fiber broadband project embraced this option. By reducing manual processes and mandating approaches that increased visibility and consistency — and, ultimately, margins — CECC was able to improve contractor retention across the multi-year deployment, and reduce production timelines by more than half.

“Once the construction started, the rich design and field data enabled us to construct really efficiently,” COO Jeremiah Sloan said, noting that CECC had been able to deploy its outside plant 84% faster than it anticipated during network planning in 2018. 

“We attribute this wholly to Render,” Sloan continued. “It just makes the design very “constructable”. I’ve managed a similar process before,” he added, “and stumbled on the transition from what our engineers design to capturing as-built records centrally without needing to manually reconcile the data.

“We have saved a lot of money by eliminating the number of people needed to manage a project this size from 4 to 1.”

Location, location, location

The location-based motifs of construction management technology mean that every construction item, from contractor allocation to bill of materials and bill of quantities, is mapped to an optimal build sequence that is laid out in detail before the shovel hits the dirt.

By transforming the network design into a digital scope of construction requirements, visible on a map-based interface, network teams can access a real-time view of the entire rollout to track actual vs planned resources and identify issues as they emerge. Construction tasks can be dynamically rescheduled as resource availability changes, ensuring that work is allocated to crews with the right skill sets or who have proven to operate more efficiently.

Why flexibility and build prioritization matters 

Network leaders increasingly need to prioritize build areas based on census block and location-based requirements — in the case of most federal or state funding programs — or the fastest path to revenue generation. By preparing the network build in extensive detail prior to construction, operators can plan for material and resource requirements, particularly when funding has delivery expectations linked to service areas, available resources need to be allocated here first.

Flexibility in the build strategy and technology utilization to enable this is incredibly important and an enabler in the face of exploding competition, for operators to accommodate issues such as supply interruptions, permit delays, or changes in stakeholder priorities. 

Ultimately, many of the forces shaping the future fiber deployment workforce are out of your network providers’ hands — but in an era of continuing large-scale fiber investment, the solution is to focus on what you can control.

By tapping the extensive task management and project visibility capabilities of a network construction platform Like Render, you can ensure not only that your rollout makes the most of scarce resources but that you can react to rapidly changing circumstances to build networks as efficiently as possible, no matter how supply or demand change over time.

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