Another 5G obstacle: Finding technicians to actually climb cell towers

Cell phone tower macro site (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)
Wireless carriers are looking to increase spending on upgrades to their towers. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

According to Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors, there aren’t enough tower climbers to go around.

“It’s one of our top issues,” he said. “I can tell you anecdotally it is a big challenge.”

Schlekeway said that almost weekly a NATE member company complains of an inability to hire enough technicians to do the tower work that’s needed. “It’s a very common conversation that I have,” he said. “It is a challenge finding workers, and retaining workers.”

Of course, finding workers to climb hundreds of feet into the air to handle cell equipment potentially weighing hundreds of pounds might sound difficult to begin with. But the situation has been exacerbated, Schlekeway said, by wireless operators’ loosened purse strings—and their collective desire to be first to market with 5G.

Indeed, the analysts at Deutsche Bank Research earlier this year pointed to “accelerating wireless carrier capex” in 2018, and said that U.S. nationwide wireless carriers are expected to increase their overall capex this year by 14% over last year to $30.5 billion, which the analysts noted is the biggest capex figure they’ve seen since 2014. For example, AT&T is working to add FirstNet’s 700 MHz spectrum to its towers, alongside the operator’s AWS and WCS spectrum. Meantime, Sprint is working to deploy its 2.5 GHz spectrum onto roughly half of its towers nationwide. Verizon and T-Mobile too are working to upgrade their networks with the latest technology, including 5G. And all of the carriers are working to densify their networks for 4G and 5G with small cells and other network equipment.

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Compounding the problem, Schlekeway said, is the broadcast TV industry’s ongoing work to “repack” their TV broadcasts into new spectrum bands. That effort stems from the FCC’s auction last year of TV broadcasters’ unwanted 600 MHz licenses in the recent incentive auction, an event that ultimately gave T-Mobile a dramatically expanded coverage area.

All of that tower work is creating a need among tower companies for additional workers—workers they haven’t been able to find, Schlekeway said. He said recent estimates point to around 29,000 technicians in the tower industry in the United States, a figure that Schlekeway said hasn’t changed much with this year’s increase in demand from wireless operators and TV broadcasters.

As a result, Schlekeway said that NATE is working to stir up interest among minorities, military veterans and millennials for a job that he boasted would allow them to “start at the top and work your way down while being promoted.” Schlekeway said NATE is engaging in digital advertising and other marketing efforts to get the word out about the need for additional tower climbers.

“We don’t have a magic wand,” Schlekeway said, noting NATE’s work to create more interest in tower-climbing jobs. But he added, “I think collectively the industry is starting to move in a direction to raise awareness of the opportunity.”