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Sunday, April 14, 2024

AT&T, Corning find success training broadband installers

We are in the early stages of a massive installation of fiber optic cable. Billions of dollars are being invested nationwide and in North Carolina at the federal, state and local level. The goal is to roll out broadband networks to areas that have had limited or no connectivity to the Internet, particularly rural and low-income neighborhoods.

In May, I wrote about a joint effort by AT&T and Corning to train more technicians to install all this fiber; we’re shorthanded right now. Corning manufactures fiber optic cable in North Carolina – the backbone of the Internet – and AT&T is running a lot of it to expand its broadband network. I checked in with AT&T’s North Carolina president, Trey Rabon, to see how training was going.

A few weeks ago, he was in Charlotte watching a dozen or so folks go through the program at Corning. “I met one guy from North Dakota,” said Rabon. “I met somebody from Maine. Certainly, a number of folks from North Carolina.”

Trey Rabon

On the last day, the Corning team spent time debriefing the students on how well it went. There’s an interesting video about the course, if you want to see what it looks like. 

“Our first course is a week-long training program targeting entry-level personnel, where they’ll learn the basics of handling optical fiber and optical cable. Students will receive hands-on training on fiber connectivity, splicing, testing and troubleshooting and well as field construction techniques,” said Bob Whitman, a Corning Optical Communications vice president, on the video. 

Corning and AT&T are working with local community groups, community colleges, and veterans support organizations to recruit trainees from diverse backgrounds and locations. There are good jobs to be had, a lot of them. “. . .[O]ur industry expects another 850,000 jobs will need to be added over the next five years,” said Mike Bell, senior VP and general manager of Optical Communications, on the video.

Like old times

In the late ‘90s, Rabon was learning how to do this with copper wires, the predecessor of today’s lightning-fast glass strands.

“It reminded me of myself . . . when I first went to work at BellSouth, which was a predecessor company of AT&T, and working with 25-pair color code cables, and multi-bundle cables,” said Rabon.  “A lot of the skill sets are very similar. Obviously, splicing glass is a fundamentally different craft than tying together copper cables, but the methodology, the approach was very similar.”

Rabon joined BellSouth as a service consultant in 1999. He needed to know enough about the technology to help customers. 

“I was the person that met with the customer, identified what the customer’s needs were, and then I would work with our engineering team . . . to configure equipment at the customer location.

“At the time, the training methodology that we used was to ensure that we had awareness on the tasks that were being done by the technicians, and the tasks that were being done by our engineers, so that if there was a problem being reported, we knew where to start in terms of identifying what the root cause may be.”

He drew on his early career with the trainees.

“When I had an opportunity to speak to the class, I recalled the time when I was sitting in the exact same spot they were, learning a new trade craft. And what I shared with them is that I was looking at a community-level of trade.” 

Today, the market for network technicians is national.  “With the advent of fiber optic infrastructure across this country, we have a huge opportunity in all 50 states,” said Rabon, “and the work that they’re going to do in the Upper Midwest and the Plains states gives those communities an opportunity to leapfrog other communities that have existing infrastructure and are focused on upgrading existing infrastructure rather than deploying brand new infrastructure.

“What I shared with them is really, the world is your oyster,” he said. And that is especially true in North Carolina.

Between the state’s allocation of federal grants and matching investment by telecom companies, there could be up to $3 billion in broadband construction here over the next five years. New networks are being put in and older networks are being upgraded. For large parts of the state, this is the 21st century equivalent of good roads, electricity and telephone lines in the first half of the last century.

“In the next handful of years,” said Rabon, “everybody who wants connectivity will have an opportunity for connectivity.  Some of it will be fiber; some of it will be cable; some may be fixed wireless. There’s no single technology that will be deployed statewide.  Every community is a little bit different, and the type of technology deployed in that community may be geared to fit that community’s needs.”

The end of Internet anxiety

We still talk about the quality of our Internet now like we used to talk about the size of our hard drives 30 years ago. Eventually, we stopped talking about hard drives; storage got cheap and the cloud came along. And we will stop talking about Internet speed, because it will just be fast, everywhere. No more doing speed tests. No more asking about the Internet in a particular neighborhood we’re looking at. 

Instead, we can talk about innovation enabled by the astonishing technology platform that has developed since Rabon was learning to splice copper.

“The first 110 years of our industry, providers really drove the innovation and use cases.  Think about your wireline phone,” said Rabon. “You went from community party lines to every individual having their own wireline telephone, and how they used it was largely driven by the technology at hand.

“Well, now we’re at a point where the broader ecosystem and the use cases that people and businesses and communities are identifying and embracing are really driving the evolution of our industry and driving the investments in fiber infrastructure.”

He recalled 15 years ago, when he got an iPhone. “I could not have envisioned in 2007 what these devices have done to our industry and to our world.  You think about how much the world has changed in the last 15 years, and that singular moment when [Steve] Jobs unveiled the iPhone, and brought it to market, really changed the way we communicate.

“We think about the next 15 years as we’re connecting our entire country, and certainly across the state of North Carolina.  I don’t think any of us can envision where we’re going to be in 15 years, as innovators utilize that technology.”

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