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WISPA CEO, 3M Exec Talk Supply Chain, Material Demand at AGL Virtual Summit

By Mike Harrington

Sonya Roshek, vice president of field services for B+T Group, moderated an insightful back-and-forth conversation about supply and demand between Claude Aiken, president and CEO of WISPA, and Chuck McDonald, senior manufacturing manager for 3M Electronics Materials Solutions, at the AGL Virtual Summit on Nov. 10.

The session, called “Out of Stock: Mitigating Global Supply Chain Issues,” focused on how the pandemic has set off a chain of events that has kept the wireless infrastructure industry — along with most other industries — scrambling for the past two years to meet demand for their customers during these days of chronic shortages.

Toward the end of the session, WISPA’s Aiken said “It’s really tough right now — especially with the insane amount of capital that’s flowing into the telecom space — to give other advice than you’ve got to have stuff on hand. You have to plan for future builds. These grant programs are pretty aggressive. If you’re going after private capital, they want to see deployment and ROI quickly. Our folks are the reason why Chuck is up late at night with concerns about people order too much. Because they’re all trying to get as much on the shelves as possible to meet the future demand that they see coming down the pike.”

Sonya Roshek, vice president of field services for B+T Group

Roshek kicked off the discussion by asking McDonald how 3M is handling the high demand for more products — and then asking Aiden how his association’s members are dealing with supply chain shortages.

“We have to take a step back a little bit, McDonald said. “Some of the shortage problems go back to before COVID. Much of the global supply chain stream works fine when there’s no global crisis, but as soon you throw a wrench in the system, you see what’s going on now. Going back to the pre-pandemic period there was lack of surge capacity for a number of reasons, especially in the shipping distribution industries. Stiff competition and thin price margins make it hard to catch up.”

McDonald also pointed to other factors to supply chain shortages — for instance Winter Storm Uri, a major coast-to-coast tempest that spread snowfall and damaging ice from the Northwest into the South, Midwest and Northeast from Feb. 12 to 16, 2021. “That storm put down a lot of material, including chemical raw material supply, and that’s taken longer to recover than we initially thought it would. More than just needing to be thawed out, equipment got damaged. They couldn’t get replacement equipment and they couldn’t get people to install that equipment. A lot of infrastructure-related things flowed downhill from there — raw materials used to make components; components used to make products.”

Both men talked about how both manufacturing and construction work is being held up by “a lot of little pieces, here and there” — components that couldn’t be procured. “That made you see the kind of just-in-time ordering system that folks used to do being completely disrupted now,” said Aiken.

Claude Aiken, president and CEO of WISPA

 

“Marc touched on it in the keynote,” said Aiken, referring to Marc Ganzi, president CEO of DigitalBridge, who presented the keynote address along with Vertical Bridge CEO, Alex Gellman. “It’s a lot of little things that add up to make a lot more difficult to do the work that they are trying to do, which is build broadband networks, build wireless networks and connect consumers.  We’re seeing supply chain issues in all sorts of different places. A lot of it happens in the components.”

Aiken continued: “One of the things we see most impacted now is fiber and fiber-related components, both in short supply. We’re seeing lead times for some particular kinds of fiber to be as high as two years, which is pretty insane — especially when you’re planning for future network builds and even trying to keep up the existing deployed network you have now. That can make things pretty challenging.”

Aiken said his association talked about the supply chain problem being the tech equivalent of the toilet paper crisis of 2020. “The whole COVID shutdown really threw a huge wrench into policies to keep people’s paychecks coming. This may have had incentives to keep people at home. Economic studies on both sides…The workforce issues that our members and other folks and the member in the ecosystem are seeing — the workforce shortages are certainly evidenced.”

When Sonya Toshek asked 3M’s McDonald if the bigger problem transportation links or simply not enough raw material being produced, he said it was both. “It’s kind of unpredictable which raw material will be hard to get,” McDonald said. “In some cases, we get 90 percent of the things we need and we’re just waiting on the one. I think we’re hearing that from our customers too. We’re one of many suppliers. If we’re not holding customers up, maybe it’s another supplier they’re waiting on.”

McDonald explained that China has a lot more container ship processing capability than the U.S West Coast does. “I’ve seen reports that it’s as much as five time so they can ship a lot of containers that we just don’t have the capacity to process. As far as trucks, taking that container cargo and moving it inland, I’ve seen report of seven truckloads of cargo for every one truck available. It’s not just the infrastructure. Aging population of truckdrivers, online Amazon shopping has caused a lot of truckdrivers to take jobs as last-mile delivery jobs.”

When it came to federal help, WISPA’s Aiken said he believes the Biden Administration has been favoring fiber technology over 5G and wireless.  “Public policies pushing toward fiber creates longer lead times on fiber and fiber-related materials. And that’s even before this whole infrastructure bill gets signed and we see tens of billions of more dollars flow into the system. There seems to be an inordinate focus on fiber as the be all and end all last-mile solution. And everything else is second rate. And that’s not true and it has the unfortunate impact of really crimping the fiber supply chain that necessary for the kind of middle-mile buildout that you need to see to really meet those federal goals of higher speed and last-mile connections.”

Aiken continued: “The goal is to get connectivity, high-speed connectivity out there, regardless of the type of technology, and allow communities and community-based providers to make the kind of technology decisions that meet the needs of the community and also take into account things like supply chain and other things — instead of a one-size fits all deployment solution. I think we’re going to see a much better solution at the end of the day for consumers, for supply chain, for everything involved if we’re more inclusive in our public policy approach.”

Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.

Ganzi, Gellman Share the Stage at AGL Virtual Summit

By Mike Harrington

Marc Ganzi, president and CEO of DigitalBridge Group

Alex Gellman, Vertical Bridge CEO and co-founder

Marc Ganzi, president and chief executive officer of DigitalBridge Group, and Alex Gellman, chief executive officer and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, delivered the keynote address at today’s AGL Virtual Summit. Moderated by Rick Heilbrunn, president and CEO of AGL Media Group, the keynote marked the first time Gellman and Ganzi have spoken together on the same panel, Gellman said.

“Ours is really a simple story,” Ganzi said. “It’s a story that started back in 1994, building a business with Alex, constructing digital PCS sites and building infrastructure. We’re in a really unique space today. We’re the only global-scale digital infrastructure firm that invests across all the key five verticals, and on a global basis: cell towers, networks, small cells and edge infrastructure. Today, we have about $40 billion in assets under management and 23 companies on a global basis. And we have over 100 investment professionals who wake up every day and only think about investing in this very specific ecosystem.”

Ganzi talked about the traditional way of investing in digital infrastructure, which he called picking a swim lane and a silo approach, where firms would specialize in cell towers, small cells or data centers.

“That’s the way networks were built in the 1990s and early 2000s — 2G, 3G and even 4G,” Ganzi said. “What we’re going through today is really an unprecedented window of opportunity — which is more than just mobility. Certainly, 5G is feeling the cap of expansion, but I would offer that cloud, particularly as it impacts access network cores, C-RAN and O-RAN, artificial intelligence, internet of things — all of these things are starting to converge.

“Secular tailwinds are driving us toward what I would call next-generation networks and, most importantly, toward next-generation network architecture — which is really about reliability, low maintenance and bringing technology and applications closer and closer to the end users,” Ganzi said. “This is the transition that this sector is going to go though over the next decade.”

Gellman said that he agreed.

“Marc has been talking about convergence for a number of years,” Gellman said. “It really has each year become clearer that convergence is coming into fruition. We look to our customers. We’re not looking at our competitors, we’re looking at our customers and seeing what kind of conversations they want to have, and what they’re thinking. And one thing that’s happening — certainly in the United States, but really worldwide — is wireless carriers are rethinking their networks top to bottom. Four years ago, we were talking about virtualizing the core, but now they’re really talking about is where the core should be, which drives the edge conversation.”

Gellman said that Vertical Bridge customers were looking at open RAN, shared RAN and their networks top to bottom in a new way.

“What’s exciting for us is we’re a tower company — so that’s pretty straightforward — but we have the opportunity, in the DigitalBridge family, as our customers demand a converged solution, to tailor the converged solution with the other partners in the family to that customer’s needs. Right now, what we’re seeing is that each customer in the United States has a different angle on it and is seeking different levels to coordinate convergence between our companies.”

During his presentation, Ganzi emphasized the need for connectivity in digital infrastructure. Presenting a PowerPoint slide that read, “DigitalBridge is levered to the powerful thematics driving significant investments in mobile and internet connectivity on global basis,” Ganzi said, “It’s simple: We need more connectivity, we need it better and faster.”

Ganzi said that there’s a persistent amount of investment, which sets up well for DigitalBridge’s sector — and he said that everyone who participates in the wireless infrastructure sector will be really busy for the next decade.

“So, what fuels that?” he asked. “Obviously, mobile data traffic — five times growth over the next five years. “That will come in traditional 2G, 3G and 4G, but 5G is the biggest growth vertical.  And then, fixed wireless. Enterprise 5G networks and indoor networks. Behind that is more than just wireless connectivity. It’s computers — and the pipes that ultimately fuel that.”

When AGL’s Heilbrunn asked him about the difficulties posed by the pandemic, such as supply chain issues and skilled-worker shortages, Ganzi said he would classify the challenges into three categories.

“The first is supply chain,” he said. “It’s the strangest stuff that will hold you up today. It won’t be fiber from Corning. It won’t be a monopole form Sabre, but it will be something as silly as a grounding system. It will be something as silly an AC vent — a special type of venting system for a hyperscale datacenter. And it’s sometimes the smallest components that are stuck in a shipping container. Supply chain congestion is specialized components. It’s hurting our ability to execute.”

Ganzi said the second category is just getting people back to work.

“That’s been one of the biggest challenges we’ve had,” he said. “Getting folks motivated to return to work, return to the mission.”

Ganzi said the third category is permitting, which he said is DigitalBridge’s biggest challenge.

“Municipalities have been slow to get back to full steam,” he said. “Certainly, online permitting is great, but when you’re doing specialized things, like building a 100-megawatt datacenter, trying to lay down 100 nodes in Austin, Texas — it’s challenging. I think permitting has always been the challenge — but certainly the pandemic has made it more pronounced and more difficult.”

Gellman said that he agreed.

“We’re insulated as a macro tower builder in that we can get what we need to deploy towers, but our customers can’t get what they need to install them,” Gellman said. “At some point. that’s going to back up. We haven’t seen it yet, but I am concerned and acutely aware of the potential. Interestingly, it’s not Nokia and Ericsson that are having the trouble, it’s all the other builders of materials that go into the site, where you start to run into these shortages”

Gellman raised an alarm on a regulatory issue: the FAA’s new rules, which regulate C-Band installation because of potential navigation interference.

“We’re getting notices from the FAA on any site where our customers are installing C-Band, asking a list of detailed questions about power output and antennas.”

Other AGL Summit sessions included “A Different View from the Top, in which a panel of wireless infrastructure women executives discussed the news, industry predictions and technologies.

In another session, “Venturing Out: Post-pandemic Investment,” panelists examined the types of wireless infrastructure opportunities that attract investors, including new business, mergers and acquisitions, and expanding industry subgroups.

A fourth AGL Virtual Summit session was “Out of Stock: Mitigating Global Supply Chain Issues.” The pandemic set off a chain of events that has industries scrambling to meet demand for their customers. In the supply chain session, panelists examined the areas of concern for the digital infrastructure industry and discussed how to navigate this unprecedented time of shortage.

Within several days, a video recording of the AGL Virtual Summit will become available for viewing on the AGL Media Group website at https://aglmediagroup.com/localsummits/.

Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.

Ganzi, Gellman Set to Keynote AGL Virtual Summit

Marc Ganzi, president and CEO of DigitalBridge Group

Alex Gellman, Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder, Vertical Bridge

Alex Gellman, CEO and co-founder of Vertical Bridge.

Marc Ganzi, president and chief executive officer of DigitalBridge Group, and Alex Gellman, chief executive officer and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, are slated to deliver the half-hour keynote address at the AGL Virtual Summit on Nov. 10 at 12 p.m. Eastern time. The Summit will run live from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Eastern time.

The AGL Virtual Summit is free to attend. Click here to register.

Other AGL Summit session topics include:

– “A Different View from the Top.” In this session, a panel of wireless infrastructure women executives will discuss the news, industry predictions and technologies.

– “Venturing Out: Post-pandemic Investment.” This session will examine the types of wireless infrastructure opportunities that attract investors, including new business, mergers and acquisitions, and expanding industry subgroups.

– “Out of Stock: Mitigating Global Supply Chain Issues.” The pandemic set off a chain of events that has industries scrambling to meet demand for their customers. In this session, panelists will examine the areas of concern for the digital infrastructure industry and discuss how to navigate this unprecedented time of shortage.

AGL Media Group offers additional information about Summit sessions, speakers and sponsors at www.aglmediagroup.com/localsummits. Register for the AGL Virtual Summit here.

Eyes on Data Centers: How a Tower Company Sees ROI Opportunity

By Don Bishop

The American Tower data center business includes six edge data centers strategically located at the network’s edge in an effort to achieve data efficiency and optimization with network architecture and compute power. The edge data centers use ground space at macro tower locations in Broomfield and Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; Atlanta; and Pittsburgh.  The company owns a large collocation data center in Atlanta called Metro Data Center (formerly Colo Atl).

Ed Knapp (left), chief technology officer at American Tower, and Spencer Kurn, an analyst at New Street Research.

According to Ed Knapp, chief technology officer at American Tower, “more data centers are in the pipeline with partners.” He said the company has been talking about providing data center facilities for a number of years. Knapp spoke during an AGL Virtual Summit in June at the session, “Increasing ROI at the Tower,” moderated by Spencer Kurn, an analyst who leads coverage of U.S. towers for New Street Research.

Knapp explained that a micro edge center, placed the base of a tower, occupies about 10 standard racks. “We’ve talked about what the economics per rack is and how many of those you can ultimately see in the long run,” he said. “However, those were initially experimental where we went out and looked at properties that fit the needs of owned land and in the right space, and the right connectivity and an operator environment there. Then, we went ahead and built those.”

American Tower’s Metro Data Center in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of American Tower

In the past few months, Knapp said, the company has added power capacity to the Metro Data Center, tripling the power in the downtown Atlanta facility. He said many interconnection points of fiber providers in the Southeast connect there. He said that facility gave American Tower a good perspective of the far edge along with the metro edge that feeds northbound into the hyperscalers and mobile network operators (MNOs).

“The way you have to think about the market is today, there’s an opportunity for distributed compute,” Knapp said. “Can you provide power, and can you provide space on a pro rata basis for colo that’s proximate? Although there’s demand for that for certain enterprises, that’s the first step.”

The second step involves the telco cloud, Knapp said. He explains that what happens is that operators try to invest in computing functions that handle the radio and access network and the core network functions as they move progressively to the edge. “Think of those as the U’s and C’s in the classic 5G set,” he said. “That’s the second wave.”

The third wave, Knapp said, comes once 5G is built out widely, with the need to fill in applications in the mobile edge compute — the net function.

“That’s how it will move from where it is today,” he said. “It’s super-regional level with wavelength and with what Verizon and others have deployed. As that has to progress further to the edge to get from the latencies today that are on the order of tens of milliseconds down to the sub-10-millisecond or even sub-5-millisecond latency.”

American Tower’s edge data center in Jacksonville, Florida. Photo courtesy of American Tower

Bringing the discussion to the topic of return on investment (ROI), Knapp said that thinking about the new data center technology is one thing, but also it is important to think about workflows and how to integrate the new processes associated with data centers.

“We have things like these subscriber identification modules (SIMs),” he said. “You’re managing this data center, and you now have different assets you have to take care of. You have different internet of things (IoT) and sensors that you need to feed to —or not. These are all things that need to be tied together, and the data center needs to be tied back to the other departments. For example, the finance department wants to know what’s the lifecycle of the asset, and all that comes back to ROI. We’re trying to hit double-digit ROI C’s, and we need to get the lease up in those new assets, but they have different sets of customers, different timelines and different requirements.”

American Tower has a large, suburban, rural tower portfolio in the United States, Knapp said, and the company continues to look for ways to economically get to the edge of coverage to fill in. He mentioned government opportunities coming in with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, an FCC initiative designed to inject billions of dollars into the construction and operation of rural broadband networks.

“There are a lot of ideas around fixed wireless,” Knapp said. “We’re starting to see applications in that space. These are on top of the inundation of a large number of demands from the core three plus one that those requirements of building out the wide area of mid-band 5G, is really going hot and heavy. That’s part of what everybody’s looking at,” he said, referring to AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile as the core three and Dish Network as the plus one.

The other ways 5G will move to the edge of the network in to rural areas involve potential fixed wireless improvements used to deliver connectivity more cost effectively than fiber, Knapp said. “We’re starting to see applications in that space, as well.”

Knapp gave a nod to the use of Citizens Broadband Radio Service frequencies as offering business expansion and ROI opportunity. “With General Authorized Access licenses, anybody can set up shop,” he said. “The Priority Access Licenses issued last fall are starting to make their way into the marketplace. Capital is readily available, and folks are signing up and applying. We see demand for those types of assets, as well. It’s a dynamic market between the mainstream carriers and these other folks including cable companies and, potentially, government entities.”

For the June 8 AGL Virtual Summit, Total Tech sponsors included Raycap, Valmont Site Pro 1, Vertical Bridge and B+T Group. Tech sponsors included Alden Systems and Aurora Insight. Viavi Solutions sponsored the keynote address. Additional sponsors included Gap Wireless, NATE, VoltServer and WIA.

J. Sharpe Smith programmed the Summit, and Kari Willis hosted. AGL Media Group has scheduled the next AGL Virtual Summit for Sept. 8. To register, click here.

Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.

Wireless Services Companies Cope With Pandemic, 5G Complexities

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

Clockwise: Shama Ray, Above All Tower Climbing; John Marshall, Black Veatch; GM Saddat, Concordia Wireless

When China’s industrial output dropped because of its COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the first quarter, it caused delays in the equipment vendor supply chain for the wireless infrastructure industry, according to a panel during the AGL Virtual Summit in November, which was moderated by Shama Ray, owner, Above All Tower Climbing.

“It was just a part of the challenges caused by the pandemic, but material shortages have been an eye-opener,” said GM Sadat, chief engineering officer at Concordia Wireless. “We got stuck because we could not find 200-amp breakers. We found used breakers and even looked for them on Ebay.”

The shortage of materials reinforced Sadat’s belief that the United States should bring more of its manufacturing back into the country.

Along with the lockdown in China, which reduced industrial output by 25 percent in February, shipments at the Port of Los Angeles were down 20 percent during the first five months of 2020, according to the Maritime Executive news outlet. With restricted supplies, demand remained steady, according to Sadat. “COVID or no COVID, we were still building,” he said. “The only thing that stopped people was lack of material.”

Black & Veatch saw the effects of equipment shortages slow its work on a number of sites. John Marshall, the company’s vice president and program director, said, “We had less equipment on site and fewer people employed to build the sites. It affected a lot of families across the board because we just couldn’t get the equipment to install.”

The pandemic continues to affect work crews as they travel from site to site. Construction crew members are a matter of concern because of their travel schedules and the work they perform in deploying systems in healthcare facilities, according to Sadat, but he said that Concordia has not had any COVID-19 cases among its workers so far.

“There are challenges because they move from hotel to hotel,” Sadat said. “So we have create procedures for sanitizing rooms and additional safety procedures for working in hospitals.”

Black & Veatch has reduced the amount of travel required of its crew members, relying more on local crews in each state. “We are trying to keep people from traveling,” Marshall said. “We try to keep our field employees from moving state-to-state. We try to keep each person working in the same state or area.”

The pandemic has been hard on the jurisdictions, which have had to alter their practices to allow their government employees to remain socially distant.

“We are seeing a dramatic slowdown on permitting,” Sadat said. “When we do get a permit, then we have to go find a crew. Overall, the pandemic has slowed things down, but where there is a will there is a way.”

On the Brighter Side

Nevertheless, there have been some upsides to the current pandemic. Concordia Wireless, which is based Carol Stream, Illinois, has expanded from operating regionally to nationwide, working with engineers in California, Texas, Massachusetts and Florida, among others.

“We pushed out 100 laptops to our employees and told them to go home, and it has allowed us to become a nationwide company, because we are no longer based in one area,” Sadat said. “Some employees have even moved south to warmer climes without losing seniority.”

Black & Veatch has revisited its business practices that were centralized in its headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas. “In the past, we thought we had to be in the same office to work as a team,” Marshall said. “It has shown us that we can all work remotely and still be effective. It has caused us to question whether we need a large building with all these people in it.”

5G Buildouts

Not to be forgotten in 2020 is the roll out of 5G radios to cell towers, which has changed the game for crews in a number of ways. Wireless services company are deploying dual-band radios, instead of single-band radios, and are running fiber using a dedicated path to the 5G radios.

“Today’s towers have a 5G, 4G and a little 3G,” Sadat said. “The days of operating a single network are over.”

5G antennas on macrotowers are beefier. With the move to massive MIMO, the industry has moved from four-port antennas up to 12-port antennas. However, with small cells, the reverse is true.

“On the macrotowers, the antennas are getting bigger and bigger, and there are more radios on top because of the multiple technologies that are still in use; but in the small cells, things are getting smaller. Everything is integrated inside,” Marshall said.

Nonetheless, the increase in technologies on the tower and expanded access to various spectrum bands are making tower deployments more complicated today than ever before.

“We are seeing more PIM issues with 5G, so it takes longer to troubleshoot it and get the site on the air,” Marshall said. “We are not dealing with 600 MHz and spectrum in the former TV band, 2.5 GHz, a lot of different frequency bands and technologies. It takes longer to troubleshoot,” Sadat said.