5G expansion hits bump with search for materials, labor

Technology connects our world, and the development of critical technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing is essential for protecting the U.S. against foreign adversaries.

The rollout and expansion of next generation wireless technology is running up against some pandemic-related hurdles.

The move toward 5G is forcing some industries to make upgrades at a time when hiring is proving challenging and supply chain issues have led to shortages of semiconductor chips and other crucial materials.

The fiber optic cable industry, which helps build out the infrastructure needed to link small cell sites together for 5G deployment, says it’s unable to staff and supply much of that work.

“We are concerned about the labor. Right now we’re looking at an investment cycle that’s going to be 4-6 times the traditional run rate … and our industry right now is only able to grow at about 15 to 20 percent a year,” Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton told The Hill.

“We are a little bit worried about the cable itself. Fiber optics look good but the cable has some materials that have been on a short-term shortage,” he said.

To help address staffing concerns, Bolton said his association is launching a fiber optic technician certification program nationwide that aims to bolster the industry’s skilled workforce ahead of a significant broadband investment from the federal government if the House sends the Senate-passed infrastructure bill to President Biden’s desk.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan package, which House Democratic leaders hope to bring to the floor for a vote in the coming weeks, includes $65 billion for broadband. It would provide nearly $43 billion for broadband infrastructure expansion, as well as subsidies for low-income users and funding for rural initiatives.

“We’re seeing the largest investment cycle in history for fiber infrastructure. 5G is going to significantly benefit from that because you can have all the latest radios in the world, but if you don’t have the 5G infrastructure, you’re not gonna get very far,” Bolton said.

The global semiconductor shortage, due largely to COVID-19 supply chain interruptions that began more than 18 months ago, has hampered the automotive, medical device and consumer electronics industries. Earlier this year, automakers in the U.S. and abroad reduced production and temporarily shut down plants.

The fiber optic industry also isn’t alone on the labor front.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 10.4 million job openings for August, down slightly from a record high of 10.9 million openings in July, but still historically high.

Some industries argue that the march toward 5G is coming at a bad time. As wireless carriers continue building out their nationwide 5G networks, devices that rely on older technologies may not be supported in the next year or two. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have announced they will shut down their 3G networks in 2022.

Groups concerned about the changeover have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking for the agency to extend AT&T’s transition. The Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC), part of The Monitoring Association, asked the FCC in May to prevent AT&T from retiring its 3G network until the end of 2022, citing difficulties upgrading technology as a result of the pandemic, staffing issues and the global chip shortage. 

AT&T has said those arguments were “not credible” and that alarm companies have had years of notice to upgrade devices.

“Having signed up new customers in record numbers, these alarm companies are fully capable of replacing 3G radios still used by existing customers,” the company wrote in an August FCC filing. 

Alarm industry groups say the current timeline could threaten the health and safety of individuals who rely on the devices to protect their life and property.

“This is not a ‘manufactured crisis’ but a real one that will put millions of lives and property at risk simply because of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and related worldwide product shortage of microchips,” AICC said in a statement to The Hill.

The FCC last week took another step toward freeing up more spectrum for 5G.

The FCC launched an auction on Oct. 5 for what’s known as mid-band spectrum. The congressionally mandated auction will allow telecommunications companies to purchase licenses to use valuable mid-band spectrum to expand their 5G networks.

Many of the bidders are expected to be household names, such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, although winners won’t be named until final results are published after the auction concludes later this month.

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