Senators fret over lack of manpower to build 5G

Senators fret over lack of manpower to build 5G
© Greg Nash

A group of senators on Wednesday fretted over the U.S.'s ability to recruit tens of thousands more people to help build the next generation of wireless technology, a massive undertaking that will require significant manpower if the country wants to lead the so-called race to 5G.

The Senate Commerce Committee convened a hearing to discuss their 5G concerns on the second day of the upper chamber's impeachment trial of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE, an attempt to prove that lawmakers can multitask even as Congress debates whether to remove the president.  

Seven members of the committee questioned the witnesses — including Brendan Carr, a Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, and telecom industry representatives — about the "5G labor shortage." 

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According to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerBottom Line Stimulus empowers Treasury to rescue airlines with billion in direct assistance White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package MORE (R-Miss.), some projections estimate the U.S. needs 20,000 more people to help "accelerate the deployment of 5G in order to win the race and secure the first-move advantage in the United States." Right now, there are about 27,000 workers prepared to install 5G equipment.

"Additional labor will also be needed to lay fiber, to support wireless connections, install radios and deploy other essential equipment," Wicker said. 

The next generation of wireless networks, known as 5G, is expected to upend and potentially revolutionize modern technology, promising lightning-fast speeds and an array of internet-connected devices.

But the work behind building the flashy technology is often taxing and difficult, requiring people to scale extraordinary heights and oftentimes travel away from their families, witnesses told the committee.

"We’ve got to make hard work cool again," said Jimmy Miller, the president and CEO of MillerCo, a small telecom services company based in Wicker's home state of Mississippi. "We’ve got to get the word out that this is a career, it exists, it is real." 

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"It's a high-risk industry," he later added. 

Unlike 4G networks which can transmit signals for miles using big cell towers, 5G signals can only travel short distances, so in order to build out the new networks, telecommunications companies will have to install smaller cell stations — about the size of a refrigerator — every several hundred feet.

"Having that workforce is of particular importance, not because we need to just construct networks but because we also need to understand the design, management and especially the security of these networks," ranking member Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMcConnell sets Friday night deadline for bipartisan deal on stimulus Washington state lawmakers warn health workers running low on protective gear Carper staffer tests positive in Delaware MORE (D-Wash.) said. 

The witnesses largely agreed that investing more in education — teaching telecom-specific skills to students in middle school, high school and college — could help with the issue. 

"We need to expand our workforce," Carr said, expounding on his plan to use community colleges as a potential pipeline into the industry. 

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge, warned the senators against buying into the "self-serving hype of industry stakeholders." 

"Workforce shortages are a serious concern but Congress must make sure that workers are not exploited in the name of 5G," Feld said.