Speaking on Jan. 30 at the AGL Local Summit in Seattle, Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson Technology Management, gave a contractor’s perspective of the wireless telecommunications industry. As a designer and builder of telecommunications infrastructure, including fiber-optic cable routes, small cells and towers, Tilson employs 650 people. Broder spoke during the session, “Tower Services: Evolving to Meet Today’s Carrier Needs.”
As the moderator of the session, Todd Schlekeway, executive director of NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, asked whether contractors such as Tilson train new technician-level workers to work on both traditional macro towers and small cells that are built in rights of way.
We’re typically putting together the design that leads to the entitlement process both jurisdictionally and from a pole licensing standpoint.— Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson Technology ManagementBroder said Tilson has dedicated teams that provide tower services and dedicated teams that provide small cell services, and the company has a labor force on the edge of each type of work that crosses over both. For tower construction, Broder said, Tilson recruits pedigreed tower climbers. For small cell construction, the company recruits people with lineman skills.
Referring to the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP), a joint venture of telecommunications companies, industry associations and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Broder said Tilson automatically enrolls its Level 1 and Level 2 employees as TIRAP apprentices. TIRAP develops DOL-credentialed apprenticeship programs available to qualified employers for career development of a telecommunications workforce.
“Last year, we enrolled about 80 TIRAP employees,” Broder said. “The mentor-student pairs will have an opportunity to cross over between Tilson teams. In our traditional workforce, we have some bifurcation. At some level, it is helpful to have the necessary specialization.”
At Tilson, Broder said, there is much greater crossover between the tower and small cell divisions than between the fiber and in-building divisions. “We have folks who work inside and outside on fiber, and folks who work on towers and in buckets,” he said.
Workers with what Broder called adjacent skills have the ability to transition from physically demanding work to assignments at a more senior level, with additional incremental training. This may occur as some workers lose physical strength or may develop a painful condition, yet they learned how to provision a radio, understand civil design standards and have the mentality of working in a safe manner.
“Fundamentally, the table stakes that we’re thinking about is what is the safe method of accessing the facility they’re working on, so the discipline of having a bucket truck operating under power and in traffic is different than rope access on a tower, which is then again different from how to access a drop ceiling safely,” Broder said. “Our safety performance has been very strong relative to injuries, but the few injuries we’ve had have typically involved someone falling off the second rung of a ladder while accessing a drop ceiling. That has been a greater cost to us than any tower injury we’ve ever had.”
5G Technology Benefit
Broder said not only does Tilson install 4G and 5G wireless communications technology, the company benefits from field reporting platforms that rely on wireless communications.
“As we’re building 5G, we typically have access to 4G,” Broder said. “And where we have access to 4G, particularly in the design engineering phase of the operation, we’re able to collect data and share that data from surveyors in the field with engineers who are at a desktop before the surveyors leave the field.”
This gives contractors a huge ability to go out and touch a site once, gather the necessary data and address constructability or a design challenge while the surveyor is still in the area, Broder said. Generally, Tilson uses a tablet device with software templated for the specific project and uses video and still photogrammetry with sub-meter-accuracy survey-grade GPS to enable streaming survey data to allow a registered professional engineer to provide a sophisticated design with just one touch.
“In some cases, we’re hearing that that’s an automated touch — a drone,” Broder said. “But at a minimum, it’s a surveyor with connectivity in the field, and we really don’t want to ever send that surveyor back out to that site before it’s constructed. It is hard to imagine how we did this before fleet tracking systems. We did it, and I vaguely remember it, but boy, what a difference to have a real-time operational picture of where all your assets are in the field.”
The innovation lies in the software used with drones that give the ability to go from a video feed with a GPS location to drawings, Broder said. Using photogrammetry that cuts out not only the tower climb, but also the drawing, making it possible to auto-draw from video photogrammetry, is powerful, he said.
Small Cell Development
Broder said that in 2020, Tilson has 5,000 small cells in development for various carriers in 700 jurisdictions. When Tilson is building a small cell, the company addresses a broad base of jurisdictional and pole owner requirements. If not engaged on the front end of obtaining the municipal franchise, then Tilson is in an advisory or close collaborative mode with the carrier that is obtaining that franchise agreement, Broder said.
“We’re typically putting together the design that leads to the entitlement process both jurisdictionally and from a pole licensing standpoint,” he said. “Most electric utility poles are installable from a code perspective, but are often disqualified from a specific utility design standard perspective, which is usually more stringent than code. In such projects, we’re typically in a habitual relationship with both the carriers’ and the pole owners’ engineering and joint use departments that manage the licensing process.”
Tilson’s goal is to obtain the best performance from a utility, to be innovative on the margins short of groundbreaking, and then be able to show its work to communities entitling additional vertical structure. The idea, Broder said, is to demonstrate that Tilson will maximize collocation and, when new vertical structure is needed, give the reasons why other structures are either disqualifying or they don’t meet the Request for Proposal objective.
“From a hierarchy standpoint, we work with the utilities at the design level of engagement, and then we work with the jurisdictions for the remainder of the work,” Broder said. “In most communities, we are reaching 50 percent or more collocation. But even in the few communities where we had 100 percent collocation, there almost always has been some new vertical structure.”