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 roll out 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-plus 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 suggest 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 is expected to flatline over the same period.
Because many CSPs don’t have internal construction capability, more than 45 percent 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 with 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 and network strategies. For example, Mississippi and Alabama — C Spire’s native markets — had fewer than 1,640 telecommunications installers statewide last month. 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 networks keen to accelerate planning and deployment to take advantage of a surge in broadband network funding , which includes near-term investment of $242 billion in federal funding and grant programs and $6.8 billion in state funding.
Yet this investment is tied to strict timelines and delivery milestones. Additionally, 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 caused by missed deadlines.
For networks with no internal construction capability, the decision to invest in and train hundreds of new workers is no small order and often is 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, higher-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 percent, in their resource requirements after adopting Render Networks’ geospatial network construction technology, including Craighead Electric Cooperative Corporation (CECC) fiber broadband project.
By reducing manual processes and mandating approaches that increase visibility and consistency — and, ultimately, margins — CECC was able to improve contractor retention across the multiyear 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 percent faster than it anticipated during network planning in 2018.
“We attribute this wholly to Render,” Sloan said. “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,” Sloan said.
Location, Location, Location
The location-based motifs of digital construction management technology mean that every construction item — from contractor allocation to bills of materials and bills 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 versus planned resources and identify issues as they emerge. Construction tasks can be rescheduled dynamically 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 Build Flexibility and 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 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 your build strategy and technology adoption to enable prioritization is incredibly important and is an enabler in the face of exploding competition, for operators to overcome supply interruptions and permit delays and to accommodate changes in stakeholder priorities.
Ultimately, many of the forces shaping the fiber deployment landscape are out of your 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 demand or supply change over time.
Sam Pratt is CEO of Render Networks.
Regional carrier C Spire in the final stages of work on the multi-million-dollar project with completion expected by the end of this month.
The firm has spent much of 2019 upgrading the 1,200-plus cell sites in its wireless network and laying the groundwork for the next phase of mobile communications, which promises to transform how consumers live, work and play and how businesses thrive in the new 21st century digital economy.
“We are uniquely positioned with low, mid and high-band spectrum to ensure that we design and engineer a network that is truly customer inspired and fully meets customer needs for speed, latency and coverage,” said Alan Jones, senior vice president of Access and Deployment for C Spire.
Before the company starts rolling out next generation cellular technology, though, it must have the new, updated base stations and software that will enable a smooth transition from current 4G LTE technology and maximum flexibility and efficiency for use of precious spectrum resources.
“We’re using carrier aggregation technology, which brings together spectrum from multiple frequency bands for improved speed and spectral efficiency, and other software and hardware improvements to achieve better speeds and pave the way for Voice over LTE or high-definition mobile voice service,” Jones added.
The new base stations are adaptable, powerful and able to meet C Spire’s future needs for a next generation cellular network, software-defined services and the Internet of Things. “Not only does this new technology deliver high quality connectivity and coverage, but it helps us quickly evolve our network to meet changing requirements,” Jones said.
New mobile networks are expected to be the foundation for advances in smart home applications, smart manufacturing, smart cities and broader Internet of Things technology, including humanoid robotics, connected cars, remote surgery, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
“Imagine downloading a 4K movie in seconds or watching video in a crowded football stadium with no buffering,” Jones said. “That’s the potential, the promise and the challenge of 5G. We need to chart an intelligent, timely and efficient path from 4G LTE to 5G that makes this a reality.”
Some analysts are forecasting the IoT market to grow to $520 billion by 2021 and the number of cellular IoT connections to reach 3.5 billion by 2023. “The potential is mind-boggling – so we have to make sure we have the right technology and the right network to support all of that activity,” Jones added.
As a part of the C Spire Tech Movement to build a better future through technology, education and innovation, 5G could help close the digital divide that limits innovation and opportunity in rural areas of the U.S. The technology could pave the way for new education possibilities, opportunities for rural farmers and small-town entrepreneurs while giving working people greater access to healthcare and near instant connections to friends and family.
Earlier this year, C Spire formed a consortium with Airspan Networks, Microsoft, Nokia and Siklu to test and deploy a variety of broadband technologies and new business models for use by regional fixed and wireless internet service providers, utilities and others to help improve broadband connectivity and adoption in rural areas.
C Spire launched a 5G millimeter wave fixed wireless service last month with the deployment of broadband internet service to residents in a residential subdivision of Harrison County near the city of Gulfport. The fixed wireless service is using a C Spire cell site with 28 GHz equipment from the C Spire’s partner and 5G mmWave OEM, PHAZR, a JMA Wireless company.
Residents connected to the service have received download speeds of up to 750 Megabits per second (Mbps), upload speeds of up to 600 Mbps with latency as low as 8 milliseconds, according to C Spire President Stephen Bye.
“We use areas like this residential subdivision to continue our efforts to deliver on the promise of moving Mississippi forward with ground-breaking internet access for consumers and businesses,” Bye said. “In our state, broadband technology is the path to a stronger economy, more jobs and a healthier lifestyle.”
C Spire’s support for broadband deployment is part of its Tech Movement initiative launched in 2017 and is designed to leverage the firm’s technology investments to help transform its service areas and improve the quality of life for residents. Other elements include tech workforce development and investments in tech innovation to stimulate economic growth and broader societal impact in the 21st century.
Bye said the company plans to deploy fixed wireless internet service to thousands of consumers and businesses across the state over the next several years as part of the Tech Movement initiative and to meet the growing needs for high-quality, fast internet access and to boost the Magnolia State’s $108.5 billion economy.
PHAZR is partnering with C Spire to develop affordable 5G mmWave solutions using 5G client devices and base stations to extend the Mississippi company’s extensive 8,700 route miles of fiber infrastructure across its network, much of it at the edge of many neighborhoods, towns, cities and counties.
“5G RAN technology is the engine behind C Spire’s fixed wireless deployment and provides them with a new, flexible option that can be offered across any part of their footprint, including the many hard to reach, less accessible areas,” said Farooq Khan, president of the PHAZR unit at JMA Wireless.
C Spire and Mimosa Networks are working together on a 5G fixed wireless initiative in Mississippi designed to extend broadband internet access service to more consumers and businesses. Mimosa’s sub-6 GHz equipment and technology solutions will be deployed in neighborhoods, small towns and cities across the state.
C Spire is offering consumers and businesses in some Mississippi markets 5G internet access that features download speeds up to 120 Mbps and upload speeds of 50 Mbps for $50 a month with no extra fees, no contract and no data limits. Mimosa Network’s hybrid fiber wireless client antennas will be used to connect hub homes and other residences in neighborhoods. The devices resemble a dinner plate and are about one third the size of a typical satellite dish.
C Spire is deploying Mimosa solutions in neighborhoods using short-range MicroPoP architectures and in limited tower deployments. The deployment includes Mimosa A5 and A5c access devices, Mimosa C5 client devices, and Mimosa N5-360 beamforming antennas.
C Spire has acquired Birmingham, Alabama-based TekLinks, a resell, cloud, managed and professional services provider. Terms of the transaction between the two privately-owned companies were not disclosed, but C Spire said it expects to complete the acquisition and merger integration process within the next 60 to 90 days.
Founded in 2001, TekLinks is a nationally recognized service provider with primary operations in three states – Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Many of its eight offices operate in the Southeast U.S., including Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama; and Nashville, Tennessee.
TekLinks ranked 16 of firms ranked among the top cloud service providers, managed service providers and value-added resellers in the U.S. and has just completed a successful growth and acquisition phase and deeper expansion into the key vertical market segments of health care and financial services.
In 2016, the company bought Nashville-based Guidant Partners, a leading managed services firm. In 2015, TekLinks acquired cloud services player Claris Networks, based in Knoxville and in 2013, the company merged with health-care managed services provider ClinicAnywhere formerly ETG.
The acquisition is the latest in a series of moves by C Spire that signal an accelerated and expanded focus on innovative voice, data, IT and cloud solutions for businesses across its footprint and around the country. Last fall, C Spire launched an initiative to bring fiber-based 1 Gbps fiber-based ultra high-speed internet access to up to 250,000 small and medium-sized businesses in Mississippi. The company continues to expand its voice, data, managed and cloud services for government agencies and private businesses and operates several Uptime Institute-certified data centers.
Bank Street Group served as the exclusive financial advisor to C Spire in connection with this transaction.