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Tower Industry Set for the “Year of 5G”

But even with high crew demand, credit terms are a growing concern

The National Association of Tower Erectors leads a wireless structure industry closely focused right now on TV repack work and the 5G rollout. Those issues and others have bearing, directly or indirectly, on the radio business. 

NATE Unite 2019, the organization’s annual conference, is Feb. 4–7 in Grapevine, Texas, near Dallas-Ft. Worth, and will feature educational sessions, optional courses and industry speakers. Specific topics include tower safety, 5G deployment, unmanned aerial systems and other emerging technologies in the wireless sector. 

Radio World asked NATE’s Executive Director Todd Schlekeway for a preview of its gathering and his views of the country’s wireless infrastructure issues.

Radio World: What are the most pressing issues on your radar facing the tower industry in 2019?
Todd Schlekeway: This is being billed as the “year of 5G” and next-generation wireless service for faster mobile internet. Our members will be on the front end of deployment. It’s creating a lot of work, especially in urban areas of this country. We will have numerous sessions at our show concerning 5G deployment.

Workforce development remains a top issue. Our industry is right in the middle of TV repack work on tall towers. We have broadcast contractors and all they’re doing 24/7 is repack transition work. In addition, we have members doing the FirstNet public safety broadband work. 

All of those factors are coming together and it means we do not have enough workers in our industry. It’s not unique to our industry. A lot of the trades are having the same problem. So we have a new apprenticeship program in the industry to talk about.

Finally, there is this issue of contract terms and payment terms that has come to the forefront. Most of our membership is made up of small-business contractors, and they are most vulnerable to the changes we are seeing. The payment terms from some of the vertical real estate tower owners and carriers keeps getting pushed out. It was pretty standard for 30- or 45-day payment terms until recently. Now that has been pushed out to 90 days and 120 days. And that is just when the clock starts for payment. 

What happens is you ask these small contractors to essentially become small lending institutions and banks. I’m hearing more and more about it. We are reaching out on the diplomatic front to ask these companies to walk back those terms.

RW: The use of commercial drones in the industry is becoming commonplace. What kind of benefits are tower crews seeing?
Schlekeway: We are very interested in emerging technologies, and unmanned aerial systems are a great asset for tower workers. Commercial drones allow workers to complete tower work more efficiently and safely. We have sessions dedicated to drones at NATE Unite. Our Unmanned Aerial Systems Committee will be meeting during the conference to further explore uses for the technology.

Drones are a powerful safety tool for the industry. It can reduce some of the repetitive climbing. NATE estimates that it can reduce the amount of climbs on a site over the course of a project by a third. 

But there is a lot more value added using drones. You have inspection videos and photos, 3D imaging that can be shared with clients. Even during emergencies they can be used to evaluate damage to facilities. Like anything new we continue to evaluate the technology, but we think a UAS is something every contractor should have in their toolkit.

RW: The spectrum repack of TV stations was expected to put a great deal of pressure on availability of tower crews, for both TV as well as radio stations. Has that been the case?
Schlekeway: By all accounts, Phase One of the repack, which is completed now, went very well. However, it is likely to get more challenging with each subsequent phase. Phase Two is currently underway. NATE’s role is really to be a resource for both the broadcast community and the wireless industry. We act as a bridge between them.

NATE doesn’t have a position on the timeline and whether that 39-month window that the FCC ordered after the incentive auction is long enough. We just want to make sure the industry has the resources available to complete the work as scheduled and on time.

RW: What specifically should radio broadcasters know about the potential impact of 5G’s rollout on the tower industry, on tower crews and on infrastructure in general?
Schlekeway: The 5G rollout, as I noted, will be mostly in urban areas. Some existing infrastructure will be used for the new 5G equipment. So if you own a radio tower with space to lease, that could be an opportunity.

Densification is really the key component to 5G, so you will be seeing a lot of these pizza box style antennas go up on light poles or even street lights in very dense downtown areas where they are allowed to do so. In the end, it’s about densifying networks to accommodate more demand. I believe in certain cities you’ll start seeing more and more of these small antennas hanging off infrastructure to accommodate demand. I do not expect much disruption to radio broadcasters.

RW: There appears to be some confusion among radio engineers about tower construction and related safety standards, specifically on how to deal with a proposed additional load to an existing tower. What steps should a radio engineer engage to get the best answers to such a situation?
Schlekeway: The ANSI/ASSE A10.48 Standard was released in 2016 and it was a game-changer for our industry. It’s everything related to tower construction and maintenance. It covers everything from pre-construction to tower demolition and everything in between. It’s provided a lot of clarity for contractors in the industry. NATE has a lot of great resources available covering both tall broadcast towers and traditional small cell towers.

There are three places to start looking to get answers. The first is the ANSI/ASSE A10.48 Standard. The TIA-322 Standard is the engineering standard, so that’s a great reference point. And of course the TIA-222-Rev H released in 2018 covers wind loading and the tower structure itself. Those are the three standards that I would direct a radio engineer to review if they have questions.

RW: There were five tower structure related fatalities in 2018, down from eight in 2017, according to OSHA statistics. What is the trend line for tower safety as measured by accidents and deaths?
Schlekeway: All of us are committed to fall protection. Falls are generally the leading cause of death in tower accidents. I can say the safety culture continues to get better and better in the industry. We have more standards, more resources and a national certification organization, National Wireless Safety Alliance, which NATE helped found in 2015 that provides to provide nationwide credentialing for workers.

All of those factors are helping, but we always have more work to do. When you have people working at elevation there is no margin for error.

RW: What policies are you pursuing in Washington that broadcast radio readers should be aware of?
Schlekeway: We have a stronger regulatory and legislative presence than ever before. I mentioned our industry’s worker shortage. NATE’s top priority is the Communications and Jobs Training Act legislation that we expect will be reintroduced in bipartisan fashion in the 2019 Congress.

It would provide $20 million to develop curriculum for certificate-based programs for community colleges, veteran’s organizations and technical institutes for programs in our industry. It’s part of our broader workforce development priorities. We are putting a full grassroots press on this. The measure was introduced last year but never came up for discussion.

Organizations supporting the legislation include CTIA, National Association of Broadcasters, Telecommunications Industry Association, Utilities Technology Council and Wireless Infrastructure Association. 

We also have worked closer with the FCC on streamlining structure permitting. There has been positive movement in that regard.

RW: How many attendees do you expect at NATE Unite 2019 and how does the exhibitor list look?
Schlekeway: It’s looking great. We expect 140 to 150 exhibitors with close to 2,000 in attendance. We are very excited to have FCC Chairman Ajit Pai as one of our keynote speakers, along with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. We are excited to have that caliber of speaker. They both have experience obviously on the radio and wireless side of our industry. 

RW: You and NATE COO Paula Nurnburg recently signed long-term extensions to remain with the organization. What is your vision for NATE moving forward?
Schlekeway: The sky is the limit for NATE, and I am ecstatic to continue representing the association in a leadership capacity. As 5G deployment begins to scale in 2019, continuity among our executive team will enable NATE to continue playing a leading role positively impacting the wireless ecosystem through the association’s policy advocacy, resources development and grassroots outreach.