How to keep FTTx rollouts on track despite lack of skilled technicians
When it comes to FTTx rollouts, one of the biggest pain points appears to be the ongoing lack of skilled labour. At the same time, we’re seeing demand for a significant reduction in the time and cost involved in developing and deploying fibre networks which is affecting rollouts worldwide. New approaches are required to ensure the plans to connect hundreds of millions of new homes and businesses in the next five years can be successfully realised.
A closer look at the main developments
Experienced technicians are extremely hard to find and training a new workforce is costly, making it difficult to meet deployment goals. According to a recent RICS Global Construction Monitor survey, construction labour shortages were cited by 72% of European respondents. A November 2021 ING report shows that 3,000 fibre construction vacancies in Germany couldn’t be filled. Manpower mentions a figure of 15,000 positions that can’t be filled in the UK, and shortages across Europe will rise in coming years.
Recently, the previous UK home secretary, Priti Patel, offered telcos help in finding skilled labour to roll out gigabit broadband, for example by bringing in large number of foreign workers. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Every network operator, incumbent and AltNet across Europe is attempting to attract people out of a very small pool of technicians which has a high proportion of mobile staff ready to relocate to other regions or countries when tempted by a better offer. This makes it even harder - and ultimately more expensive - to retain skills. This battle is particularly severe because every time an operator hires someone new it not only helps speed up their deployment - it also slows down competitors.
Current training and apprenticeship programmes can only help fill part of the shortage. So how to handle the growing need for connections in the face of a global shortage of skilled labour? Product solutions that require less skilled labour, reduce the overall time of deployment, and make sure no time and money is lost after installation are an important part of the solution.
Let’s examine some of the options currently available.
Pre-connectorisation and digitization
Using pre-connectorised fibres can help reduce the amount of time required in a fibre rollout. Technicians in the field only need to ensure that fibre end points are clean and connect them, saving a huge amount of time during installations. Using pre-connectorised solutions also supports easier fibre identification and ensures connections meet customer specifications. What’s more, the risk of human error is reduced.
However, this approach only works well if planning and route surveys are accurate. If any deviations need to be taken into account, and routing in the field needs to be changed, using pre-connectorised solutions can actually reduce flexibility. Ensuring sources are reliable and double-checking all data on which fibre routes are based is a must. If splicing is required, it’s important that the most reliable, efficient, field-proven in-cassette splicing is used. Nexans fibre panels, for example, can hold up to four splice cassettes and only the top splice cassette needs a cover
Increasing digitization in FTTx network design, rollout, and optimisation plays an important role in optimising fibre routes. Geo-analytics, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging for 3D modelling), physical network inventory and construction management tools help determine routes – and potential obstacles – in significant detail. The importance of getting and keeping digital tools and processes up to scratch can’t be overstated: all too often, legacy applications, siloed systems, and a lack of real-time customer information lead to longer rollouts and missed dates.
Smart monitoring, maintenance and repairs
There’s not only a shortage of technicians required to construct fibre networks - there are also insufficient trained technicians to take care of those networks after they've been built. That means steps need to be taken to make monitoring, maintenance and repairs as cost-effective and efficient as possible.
Tracking down, diagnosing and repairing performance issues can be very time-consuming. By continuously collecting data from the entire network and using machine learning and artificial intelligence it becomes possible to track down and offer solutions to issues before they result in problems.
You can reduce cost of maintenance with cabinet monitoring and 'smart' technologies. Across counties, the emphasis is currently on rolling out as fast as possible. Future maintenance isn’t always on the radar at this stage.
Smart solutions, such as Nexans INFRABIRD™ for example, can turn passive cabinets into smart, cloud-connected assets. NFC tags using wireless radio communications on mobile devices can provide access to everything from hardware to product information and manuals, without the need to collect physical keys.
Standardisation and replication
Each location and environment presents its own unique set of challenges, so solutions that can be adapted to any application are welcome. Introducing standardisation wherever possible also makes it easier for technicians to improve installation quality. By bringing in elements that can be customised ‘on the fly’, for example by allowing different connector types into the field, you can realise rollouts with significantly less training and less inventory. Introducing a common platform, including consistent training and documentation, makes installation, ordering, and troubleshooting procedures replicable, and therefore easier and more efficient.
Boost speed and cut costs without compromising on quality
Labour represents the largest part of the cost of fibre builds, often amounting to more than half of the total cost. According to ING, civil engineering works account for up to some 75% of FTTH CapEx spend. The need to cut costs, combined with the huge lack of trained technicians – as well as global component shortages and supply chain issues – not only means that the need to simplify fibre connectivity is greater than ever but also that AltNets and contractors need to remain flexible and adaptable to alternative solutions if they are unable to deliver due to a skills shortage. One example is where some projects have reverted to ‘pulling’ fibre due to a lack of skilled ‘blowing’ teams.
‘Plug-and-play’ fibre installation technology combined with standardisation and smart infrastructure and monitoring systems can help alleviate the current labour shortage, and can reduce deployment times. As each network is different, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to making fibre rollouts and ongoing operations faster and more cost effective with fewer technical employees.
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