5G Jobs in the Year of 5G

Keynote Remarks of FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr
at the NATE UNITE Conference and Trade Show

Grapevine, Texas | February 4, 2019

It’s great to be in Texas to talk 5G and infrastructure. Although I have to admit this feels a bit like preaching to the choir since no group knows more about those topics than the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE).

The work that tower crews do every day — from building new cell sites to maintaining 2,000-foot towers — is not easy. And that’s particularly true this time of year when cold weather only makes your job more difficult. But America’s tower hands are the best of the best. It’s because of your professionalism, it’s because of your infrastructure work, that the wireless networks in the U.S. are the envy of the world.

While at the FCC, I have had the great privilege of spending time in the field with tower crews from Alaska to Florida. I have not met a more dedicated or hardworking group than the men and women of NATE.

So I want to start very simply by saying thank you!

I also want to recognize the good work NATE does on safety and professional education.

I’ve been a recipient of some of that education over the last 18 months as a Commissioner. And with a background as a Washington bureaucrat, I will be the first to say that you did not have much to work with. So my first lesson started pretty close to the ground on a bucket truck with NATE member Shentel. We were in Woodstock, Virginia, a town of about 5,000 people tucked into the Shenandoah Valley.

The high school there recently revamped its curriculum to integrate mobile technology. Students read material on their tablets, submit homework assignments through cloud drives, collaborate using online boards, and even listen to a teacher’s popular podcast. The results of this investment were obvious when I talked to a few juniors and seniors who want to pursue educations in STEM fields after they graduate. (They’ll be successful; these kids are smart.)

Talking with students at Central High in Woodstock, VA in March 2018

All of this high-tech learning requires fast Internet access. And so Shentel installed a small cell at the edge of the high school’s parking lot to meet the mobile demand. It’s a great example of how small cells are already being used in rural areas to create new opportunities — whether for students at a high school or for small businesses on Main Street. And it’s a good answer to the naysayers who claim that small cells and 5G will be the privilege of city-dwellers alone. After all, we can only claim success when every community sees the opportunities that next-generation broadband infrastructure can enable. With the good work that NATE members are doing, with the right regulations in place, I am confident that we will get there.

Back in Woodstock, I hopped on Shentel’s bucket truck and was lifted up to take a closer look at the small cell. It’s amazing how, from a distance, you can look past a pole and not even notice the backpack-sized small cells. If you spot them, they look like any other nondescript equipment attached to a nondescript utility pole. An engineer explained how much technology they now can fit in the boxes, and what a difference that can make to serving growing mobile demand.

When I got back to the ground, the crew that operates the truck told me about their work. They all had some previous experience with installing electrical equipment, but they were given additional technical training on the job. They provided for their families with these jobs, and said they were happy to be in high demand.

A few months later, I visited another NATE member, Sabre Industries. At their Iowa manufacturing plant, they make smart poles. These look like ordinary utility poles, but within them are all of the antennas and radios needed for next-gen deployments.

Sabre’s 360,000 square foot plant is not a quiet place. The iron needed for the poles rolls into the facility on railroad tracks. It’s then run through a series of presses and welding stations before being galvanized and painted. Tyler, one of the 500 employees who works there, walked me through the process, and he says that production and demand for these new poles is on the rise.

My NATE education had progressed, and so I thought I was ready for an upper level course, so to speak. It was time for my first tower climb. So we drove from Iowa to South Dakota, where NATE member Sioux Falls Tower has an indoor training facility. The team there demonstrated proper tie off and safety procedures, and before long, I was outside staring up at a 50-foot tower, wondering how I got there.

Brandon and Leland showed me the way on that first climb. Looking back on the experience, I am now convinced that they left at least one zero off of that 50-foot height description.

As Brandon moved quickly to the top, I tried to keep up while not letting my fear of heights get the best of me. When we reached the platform at the top, I was a little winded. And it did not help when Brandon and Leland started rocking the structure back and forth in an exercise that, they said, was designed to give me a sense of the conditions on a taller tower like the 2,000-foot one Brandon recently climbed. To add insult to injury, in the selfie we took at the top, Brandon flexed his biceps for the camera, I think to contrast with my bureaucrat’s physique. Judge for yourself:

My slow and awkward climbing technique did not go unnoticed. In fact, back in Washington, at an oversight hearing before Congress a few months later, Congressman Pete Olsen from Texas needled our Chairman, Ajit Pai, about his own lack of climbing experience. An industry trade publication recounted it as follows:

In that hearing, Rep. Pete Olsen (R-Tex.) chided the Chairman that Pai’s fellow Commissioner, Brendan Carr, had climbed a cell tower: Carr has been charged by Pai with overseeing the effort to clear away obstacles to network buildouts. “[D]on’t you think you should follow his lead and climb up a cell tower as well?” Olson asked Pai.
Pai joked that Carr was younger and more “nimble,” but said he would “put my own life at risk and ascend, perhaps, a 10-foot tower or a small cell in Houston.” Olson suggested he might join him.

And, per usual, the Chairman followed through:

A magazine article after the climb said the Chairman “can now claim to be a towering figure in the regulatory community.” (Get it?) It noted that he braved a hail storm, and that his 131-foot tower climb was taller than mine.

I could see where this was going. It was a 131-foot tower that day. It would be a 150-footer the next month, followed soon thereafter by a 200-foot climb. Twitter taunting. Accusations of inaccurate height measurements. Congressional hearings.

The madness had to end. And quickly.

It just so happened that during the Sioux Falls climb, Brandon mentioned that he’d been up a broadcast television tower recently. His team was preparing the 2,000-foot KDLT broadcast tower in Rowena, South Dakota, for a new antenna as part of the broadcast television repack. They asked me if I wanted get a firsthand look at their work. Impulsively, unfortunately, I said: “Sure.”

Then I watched a YouTube video of someone climbing the KDLT tower. And I watched it again. And, again. And, again.

It turns out that when you’re up about 2,000 feet, the clouds are often below you. That’s a very disorienting perspective for an office worker with a mild fear of heights.

The day to follow through on my “sure” came in mid-October — although you wouldn’t know it from the snow and ice and below-freezing temperatures. On the way up, Mike and Ammon pointed out the railroad ties stacked on top of a nearby utility shed, which prevented the ice breaking off the tower from crashing through the roof.

I could use words to describe to you what it was like to stand on top of a 2,000-foot tower for the first time, but I think it does better justice to see it for yourself:

As you all know well, intensive physical infrastructure work like Mike and Ammon’s is being performed across the country so that broadcasters can keep covering local news and providing free TV to more than 100 million households. And it allows the 600 MHz band to be repurposed for mobile service. One carrier that bought 600 MHz licenses in the incentive auction has announced plans to roll out 5G service on that band this year.

Mike and Ammon are 5G workers. They have 5G jobs. So I think it’s incumbent on those of us back in D.C. to be more forceful in explaining that 5G jobs are not limited to coders and programmers. 5G workers wear hardhats. They ride bucket trucks. They clip into harnesses and scale towers. And if these 5G heroes didn’t throw 40 pounds of tools onto their backs and climb into the sky, none of the other 5G jobs would exist. Without Mike and Ammon and Brandon and Leland — Sabre, Shentel, and Sioux Falls Tower — there would be no 5G economy. Yes, there will be 5G jobs for those wearing zip-up hoodies and white collared shirts. But just as important are all of those 5G workers with blue collars, or none.

Why is that important? Why should any of this matter to everyday Americans?

It’s because 5G is about our economic leadership for the next decade. And here’s how we know it.

Think back on your own life 10 years ago when we were on the cusp of the last upgrade in wireless technology, from 3G to 4G. Catching a ride across town involved calling a phone number, waiting 20 minutes for a cab to arrive, and paying rates that were inaccessible to many people. Today, we have Lyft, Uber, Via, and other options.

A decade ago, sending money meant going to a brick-and-mortar bank, standing in that rope line, getting frustrated when that pen leashed to the table was out of ink (again!), and ultimately conducting your transaction with a teller. Now, with Square, Venmo, and other apps, you can send money or deposit checks from anywhere, 24 hours a day.

Back when I had hair and after barely mustering the courage to ask my now wife out on a date.

A decade ago, meeting your future husband or wife required — and I know this is going to sound very 1950s to some of the millennials here, so stay with me — mustering the courage to walk up to them, in person, and, wait for it, engage in a conversation in which you ask him or her out.

It was nerve-racking, to say the least, and I am very grateful that it worked for me.

Today, though, my staff tells me, a potential loved one is just a swipe away.

Think about what was driving our economy back then. The largest companies were big banks and big oil. Today, the four largest companies in the world are Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Google. All tech. All American. All riding on mobile broadband and the infrastructure that you built.

We don’t know yet all of the inventions that will be built on America’s 5G platform — much like we couldn’t have predicted that upgrading to 4G would create the $950 billion app economy we now have. But we do know a few characteristics of 5G that may point us in the right direction.

5G networks will be fast, perhaps 20 times faster than 4G. This will allow faster versions of what we already do — faster movie downloads to our smartphones, less buffering. More exciting, though, are the new applications and disruptions that this speed will enable. At 5G speeds, the difference between wired and wireless is less meaningful. A wireless carrier today is offering in-home 5G service at prices and speeds that rival wired offerings, giving some families — for the first time — a choice in high-speed home broadband.

5G networks will be low-latency, a measure of how long it takes devices to communicate with the network. Some believe autonomous vehicles will be required to talk to networked computers in real-time to avoid potholes or dodge a deer darting across the road. The same is true for remote surgery. It’s possible that 5G networks are prerequisites for these world-changing technologies.

5G networks will also connect a nearly unlimited number of devices. This network density is required to realize a robust Internet of Things. Our 4G wireless networks do not have the capacity to keep up with the coming wave of IoT devices. The full potential of Smart Cities and Smart Ag requires 5G.

We want these 5G services. We want these 5G jobs for Americans across the country. And winning the race to 5G — being first — matters. It determines whether capital will flow here, whether innovators will start their new businesses here, and whether the economy that benefits is the one here. Or as Deloitte put it recently: “First-adopter countries . . . could sustain more than a decade of competitive advantage.”

China understands this. They view 5G as a chance to flip the script. While America dominated 4G and now has the tech economy to prove it, China wants to lead in the next decade. And they are moving aggressively to deploy the infrastructure needed for 5G.

Since 2015, China has deployed 350,000 cell sites. We built fewer than 30,000. China has been building 460 cell sites a day. That is twelve times our pace. All told, China has 1.9 million cell sites. We have around 300,000.

We should keep in mind that China has a very different system than we do. We believe in a person’s right to free speech. We believe in the rule of law and protecting intellectual property. We believe that the best way humans have discovered to provide value to each other is through freedom and the free market. These are our values. And when you build a network that’s not just about communications, but will be used to control industry, infrastructure, and security, it’s important that we embed the correct values in its design and construction. In the competition between systems, it’s important that our 5G values prevail.

The Chinese government can snap its fingers and command that a million towers be built virtually overnight. Some view this as an insurmountable advantage. I don’t. A quick glance through the history books shows that this type of central planning and industrial policy is no match for free markets.

So for America to win the race to 5G, we must invigorate the free market by empowering our tower crews. We need to put you, the builders of wireless infrastructure, in a winning position by freeing you from needless government regulation and red tape.

I’m proud that the FCC is executing on just this strategy.

In March, we updated our environmental and historic preservation rules to reflect new technology. Our old rules were written in an era when nearly every wireless antenna sat atop a 200-foot tower. So we clarified that those rules do not apply to the deployment of small cells the size of a backpack.

In September, we examined impediments to infrastructure buildout imposed by city and state governments. We clarified that the fees governments charge for siting small cells in rights-of-way must not exceed a reasonable approximation of their costs, and we tightened the shot clocks for approving small cell applications so that we can get this infrastructure up more quickly.

Those two actions alone are estimated to save $3.6 billion — money that can be reinvested in new towers and poles. In fact, one provider reports that they’re clearing new small cells for construction at six times the pace as before. Another says they’re doubling the number of cells sites they’re building. And another projects that it will increase capital spending this year by around $1 billion to accelerate investment in 5G.

While these are great results, we’re not going to slow down in our efforts to make your jobs easier.

In 2019, I am taking another look at the federal rules governing wireless infrastructure deployment. We will look to fully and faithfully implement the decisions Congress has made to streamline the deployment of next-generation technologies. We will push the government to be more pro-infrastructure by eliminating needless restrictions on siting wireless facilities. And, on a topic that I know is close to your hearts, the federal government must be a better partner when it comes to training 5G workers.

Put simply, we need more of you. We need more people with the skills to build and upgrade wireless infrastructure if America will be first to 5G. Industry is doing its part on this count.

This morning I joined Congressman Michael Burgess at Ericsson’s brand new training center in Lewisville, Texas, only 20 minutes from here. For many interested in becoming 5G workers, centers like the one in Lewisville can take you from green horn to a certified tower hand in just a few weeks. And as you know, with that certification and safety training, jobs are available and more skills can be developed while a worker earns a paycheck and provides for his or her family. Devin is just one great example. He’s a former combat engineer, and he showed me the ropes today, and just one of the skills needed for these 5G jobs, when we clipped into harnesses and practiced a controlled descent.

The opportunities for these 5G jobs is why I was so excited to hear about the Tower Installation Program at Aiken Technical College in South Carolina. The program prepares students for apprenticeships in the tower industry in weeks, not years, with advanced programs and associates degrees available after that. I have heard directly from you that demand is high for workers with these skills, and having more TTT-1s in the pipeline will reduce the burden on crews and companies that are already stretched thin. We will explore more training opportunities like the one at Aiken College going forward. This is tough work, but you shouldn’t have to travel across the country to find a place to get trained.

More can also be done in our education system to make young people aware of the incredible career opportunities in wireless infrastructure. I want to commend the Women of NATE, in particular, for their efforts on this front.

I had the pleasure of meeting with several members of their team at my office in D.C. We discussed ways to raise awareness about good-paying tower jobs and careers. And due to their leadership, there has never been a higher percentage of women working in infrastructure.

Thanks to all of these efforts, 2019 is the Year of 5G. All of the national wireless providers and a number of smaller ones will launch 5G service this year. Americans will buy their first 5G phones this year. 5G will give families another choice for high-speed home broadband this year. And, thanks to your efforts, tens of thousands of cell sites will be built and upgraded this year.

So thank you for making the Year of 5G happen. And thank you for your service to the American people.