Workforce and waivers. Those were two of the key themes and indeed the potential stumbling blocks that emerged at the Telecommunications Industry Association’s (TIA) BEAD Success Summit last week, CEO Dave Stehlin told Fierce. Now that the U.S. government has issued a waiver for its Middle Mile grant program, the prospect of forthcoming relief for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program seems more promising.
The waivers in question relate to Buy American requirements associated with the Middle Mile and BEAD programs. These specify that materials used for grant-funded projects contain at least 55% domestic content.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is administering both of the aforementioned programs, asked the Department of Commerce (DoC) to waive these requirements for the Middle Mile program in September. That request was granted earlier this month, during the TIA summit. The waiver will apply to Middle Mile grant awards made between March 1, 2023 and March 1, 2024 and be effective “for the period of performance” specified by those awards. Equipment covered includes broadband routing gear, access and aggregation switching kit, microwave backhaul equipment, fiber transport materials and optical line terminals, undersea cable gear and telemetry switches and routers.
Stehlin said while the Middle Mile waiver doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the Commerce Department will issue one for the BEAD program, it’s proof positive that officials understand why one is needed.
“BEAD will not happen without a waiver for electronics,” Stehlin said, adding that “Everyone we’ve spoken with at DoC gets it.”
Unlike the Middle Mile program, Stehlin predicted a BEAD waiver would carry a longer term. That’s in part because it’s likely BEAD projects will take longer to complete than the Middle Mile ones.
But it’s not yet clear when a BEAD waiver might come down the pipe. Stehlin said it was necessary for the DoC to act on the Middle Mile waiver request because money for that program has already begun flowing. The NTIA does not yet appear to have submitted a BEAD waiver request.
“Part of the thing is that for BEAD, they don’t have to announce it yet because money hasn’t been let yet,” he said. “My sense is they’ll hold off until they have to do something.”
The TIA summit also resurfaced concerns about how operators will overcome exiting workforce challenges, which will no doubt be exacerbated by BEAD.
Stehlin said word on the street is that some larger players are moving to buy up the contractor workforce to insulate themselves from any shortages. That could be a big problem for smaller operators, who tend to rely on contract rather than in-house labor. Already, some contractors will “tell you they’re booking out to 2026 and 2027,” he said.
Basically, the looming problem is “resource hoarding, except now it’s not toilet paper, its technicians.”
While some – including the Fiber Broadband Association, AT&T and Corning and the Communications Workers of America – have made efforts to make broadband technician training more accessible to help mitigate any potential shortage, Stehlin argued there’s still no national effort. The Biden Administration launched the Talent Pipeline Challenge last June, but that simply encourages employers to partner with training providers to build and scale regional training models.
Stehlin said TIA is looking at launching an initiative of its own which aims to address the issue by uniting federal, state and local efforts. While the shape of the program has yet to be determined, it will seek to stress that being a technician isn’t a dead end job.
“The challenge we have is – and Mastec pointed this out at the event – for their entry level technician training, they’re competing against folks that need local delivery drivers…So, you can drive an Amazon delivery truck or you can become a technician,” he said. “Now, being a technician is harder work, perhaps, but it’s also more of a career.”
Making that connection in the minds of prospective workers will be key to TIA’s effort, Stehlin concluded.