According to Heather Gastelum, T-Mobile’s senior manager whose primary role is national site safety, the wireless carrier has spent $8 billion to acquire radio-frequency spectrum in the 600-MHz band and has launched 17,000 antenna sites in 5,000 cities to cover 200 million people with 5G wireless communications coverage.
Competent, capable, safe crews are the backbone of our success. We cannot allow ourselves to be unduly exposed to firms with a poor track record.— Heather Gastelum, senior manager for national tower safety and operations, T-MobileSpeaking during the session “Tower Services: Evolving to Meet Today’s Carrier Needs” on Jan. 30 at the AGL Local Summit in Seattle, Gastelum said that T-Mobile has a team for clearing incumbents from the spectrum and works with companies such as Portland, Oregon-based Tilson Technology Management and Gig Harbor, Washington-based Legacy Telecommunications to ensure timely site construction. She shared the stage with representatives of those two companies.
The session moderator, Todd Schlekeway, executive director of NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, asked Gastelum about T-Mobile’s intensive on-boarding screening processes for its contractors. “Are there any changes in store with how you onboard your vendors and contractors in 2020?” he asked.
T-Mobile’s onboarding process is intense with substantial and detailed paperwork involved, Gastelum said. The carrier uses contractor management services company Avetta to research contractors’ safety records. Included are contractors’ total recordable incident rates (TRIR), known as a safety grade for employee illnesses and accidents, and their experience modification rate (EMR), a rating or factor used to price workers’ compensation insurance premiums.
“We are realistic in how we review the EMR, taking into consideration whether it was affected by a no-fault injury, such as a rear-end car accident, that spiked the EMR number,” Gastelum said.
“Competent, capable, safe crews are the backbone of our success,” she said. “We cannot allow ourselves to be unduly exposed to firms with a poor track record, because history sometimes leads to future outcomes.”
Gastelum said she is a new member of the board of directors for the Telecommunication Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP). TIRAP works with the U.S. Department of Labor to create job functions and categories for use in trade schools, community colleges and military organizations to give workers credentialed classifications they can use to build a resume to give prospective employers, she said.
T-Mobile also raises funds for Warriors4Wireless, a nonprofit organization formed to bridge the gap between the demand for trained and deployable wireless technicians and thousands of qualified servicemen and women eager to transfer skills they learned in the military. Gastelum mentioned one individual who was homeless and, through Warriors4Wireless, was able to obtain not only a job but also a career.
Warriors4Wireless has an initiative working with diverse and minority-owned businesses that may never have worked in telecommunications, Gastelum said. With T-Mobile’s focus on rural broadband coverage with its 600-MHz spectrum, she said, she noted that the majority of Warriors4Wireless veterans with whom she has spoken are from rural communities.
With the collaboration of the Department of Labor, TIRAP is getting into small local trade schools and community colleges with legitimate-classified, certified programs to offer students, Gastelum said.
While with T-Mobile, Gastelum said, she has spoken to groups of school-aged girls about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She mentioned Ignite Worldwide, an organization that she said works with junior high and high school girls, as a focus of her efforts, “because statistically, girls lose interest in science and math in third and fourth grade because it’s not socially acceptable. What better way to maintain their interest in these fields than having them talk with women who have been successful in their careers in STEM-related industries?”
Many careers in wireless communications do not require a college degree and pay just as well as those which do, Gastelum said. “We need people who drive trucks, pour concrete and stack steel,” she said. “Guess what? You don’t have to have a college degree to operate a crane.”
Gastelum also is serving a second term as a member of the board of governors of the National Wireless Safety Alliance (NWSA), a national worker credentialing agency. She said NWSA includes subject matter experts from every wireless carrier, tower owners and representatives from a broad cross-section of the industry. The list includes general contractors large and small, broadcasters, utilities and government agencies, she said.
“NWSA is the department of motor vehicles (DMV) for telecom,” Gastelum said. “Applicants for NWSA credentials must pass a written and practical exam to receive an NWSA credential good for five years.” The subject matter experts, she said, ensured that the tests were just right: “Not too hard; not too easy.”
With NWSA having practical examiners in all but 10 states and hundreds of electronic testing centers for administering written exams, contractors have many opportunities to send workers for testing, Gastelum said. She said that the majority of wireless carriers and tower owners either specify NWSA credentials in contracts or are adding this requirement to their contracts.
“They see the value of ensuring competent, capable crews are doing the work on our behalf and are not exposing us to undue liability and, God forbid, not coming home at the end of the day,” Gastelum said. “Ensuring that is my key goal in the role and function I serve for T-Mobile.”
Session moderator Schlekeway said T-Mobile is building cell sites to use its 600-MHz spectrum in places where previously it was not as active. He mentioned the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, for example. He asked Gastelum to discuss the regulatory hurdles T-Mobile wants to knock down.
“There is frustration across the industry, not just for us,” Gastelum said. “We need consistent time frames and consistent fees based on real costs, especially for small cells, because jurisdictions seem to be all over the map with what they’re asking for.”
She said it is difficult for carriers to plan and manage construction when some jurisdictions set time frames at 15 days and others at 150 days. “A consistent 90-day duration as an example would be great,” she said. “Otherwise, the construction is difficult to plan, manage and budget.”
Small cell construction regulation, Gastelum said, requires some flexibility because not all carriers use the same equipment. She said to require uniformity from all carriers works against T-Mobile’s ability to innovate. “For jurisdictions to assume that we can all fit our equipment into the same footprint with one option for stealthing limits our ability to serve our customers,” she said, “so providing the industry some flexibility within reason would be greatly appreciated.”
With the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones), Gastelum said, T-Mobile can collect data to use for a number of uses; a Telecommunications Industry Association/ (TIA) inspection checklist. Although she said that drones will never replace the ability of tower hands to check whether a nut and bolt are torqued properly as just one example, however drones can perform many parts of an inspection.
Gastelum said that wireless carriers are concerned about insurance and liability with drones because of their ability to photograph or map indiscriminately. “But today’s software keeps drones from looking at anything that they’re not allowed to be looking at,” she said. “That can be programmed before the flight.”
T-Mobile sometimes acquired towers that didn’t come with drawings, Gastelum said, and the old way of performing structural mapping with tower climbers was expensive and used climber resources that were needed elsewhere. Now, she said, T-Mobile can perform audits and mappings with one trained pilot using high-tech imagery via a UAV.
Drones boost climber safety, too. “If every crew in the field could fly a four-pound drone up to do their pre-climb safety check, they could check the top terminator before they attach their life to that safety cable system,” she said. “You can’t see the top terminator from the ground. I don’t care how much money you spent on a set of binoculars, you cannot look at the top terminator.”
It is important to have drone pilots who know what they are looking at on towers, Gastelum said. Piloting drones can then be a good job for those who used to climb towers and stopped because of age or injury because they understand the structure that they are reviewing. She contrasted that with using a drone pilot who simply decided one day to start a drone company yet doesn’t know our industry or structures at all. “They don’t know what they’re looking at,” she said. “The ideal is to have someone with a trained eye as your pilot, someone who understands the structure and what type of data the customer needs documenting.”
Don Bishop, executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine