Mears Broadband, a fiber network construction contractor, has launched as a standalone company just in time to support the flood of broadband deployment slated for later this year.
For the last five years, Mears Broadband was a division of Mears Group, a subsidiary of Quanta Services that provides construction services for fiber broadband projects. In an interview with Fierce Telecom CEO Trent Edwards explained the untethering will allow Mears Broadband to make decisions without impacting the 13 other companies within Mears Group. For example, if Mears Broadband decides to enter contract agreements with unions, it can do so without impacting other organizations.
“It’s allowed us to be agile, allowed us to have autonomy, be able to streamline decision making, address the market need in a very quick, efficient manner,” he said.
Most of Mears Broadband’s work is with tier one and two operators, but it also works with co-ops, fiber-to-the-home providers and municipalities. The contractor works mainly with fiber, though Edwards said they also see “a lot of scenarios” with fixed wireless.
Quanta Services claims to have built the largest contract labor force in North America, serving projects across a range of utilities. It works through a decentralized business model uniting over 200 companies that operate semi-independently within Quanta's corporate structure, and retain their own management teams and brand identities, while also benefiting from Quanta's resources.
As a separate entity, Mears Broadband has become Quanta’s largest telecom construction company.
Preparing for ‘the great build’
Edwards said launching Mears Broadband as an independent entity could be a “very big deal within the industry,” considering how much investment is about to materialize into broadband construction across the country.
Particularly, the launch comes in preparation for states to begin building through the federal $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program – what Edwards refers to as “the great build.”
“I expect we're going to see a lot of commercial engagements… third or fourth quarter this year is when things will really ramp up particularly to BEAD,” he said.
The BEAD program alone will require a huge number of contractors that can take on the responsibility of such extensive construction projects. With its new autonomy, Mears Broadband can better play a role in ensuring BEAD construction proposals are feasible and successful.
Construction typically absorbs 70-80% of fiber deployment costs, according to Edwards, and not everyone building through BEAD has experience in making the consequential “money decisions” most tier one and two operators are accustomed to. “We’ve seen it in the past with government programs that have had mixed results on if they're successful or not, and I just think we're going to really have to do things differently than what we've done in the past,” he said.
For that reason, Edwards has been a proponent of bringing in contractors early — people that “understand how a network can be constructed in reality to ensure these projects are on time and successful will be integral to the success of BEAD.”
Facing a labor shortage
The shortage of skilled labor is a much-talked-about hurdle in the way of broadband investment, with states and telecom companies coming together to look for solutions. Some estimates show the U.S. will need as many as 4.6 million manufacturing jobs filled by 2028.
Heading into BEAD's deployment, Edwards said it is unlikely that any company is fully equipped with the workforce needed for mass infrastructure expansion. He attributed that in part to many leaving the industry for retirement.
“You don't have a big funnel of the younger generation coming into construction, it's not it's not what the younger generation wants to do, quite frankly,” he said, which could be solved by helping people understand that the work done in construction is “not just digging in the dirt. What we do, is changing lives. It's a currency that they've never had in these underserved and non-served areas.”
A second obstacle to the workforce problem is recruiting and training existing people. If the industry is too focused on recruiting, companies are “just stealing people from each other,” said Edwards. “That doesn't help anything. Training has to be very important to what we're doing.”
For its contribution, Quanta has built a training network across the country, which includes the Northwest Lineman College (NLC) it acquired in 2018 to expand training for the industry’s workforce.
Part of that network is also LUMA College for Technical Training (LCTT), and the Quanta Advanced Training Center at the Lazy Q Ranch in La Grange, Texas. Participants can stay at the Lazy Q Ranch, established in 2013, for two weeks to learn broadband skills with live environments, train on equipment and do research and development.