O2 commits to plugging 339 farmer Johns into the digital economy

O2 has announced it will start pumping enhanced 4G into some of most notorious not-spots throughout the UK, with 339 communities set to receive the connectivity boost.

While the digital divide is clearly still present across the UK, it does seem O2 is attempting to make use of 4G spectrum acquired in the last auction to counter the imbalance. The last 12 months has certainly seen O2 up its game on the connectivity front, Ofcom confirmed O2 had delivered against its commitment to provide 98% indoor 4G coverage and 90% geographical coverage across the UK earlier this year, and this appears to be a continuation of the positive work. O2 has stated in intends to improve the 4G experience for an additional 339 communities of more than 100 people across the UK by the end of the year.

“We know mobile has the power to make a real, positive difference to people’s lives and businesses in rural communities across Britain,” said O2 UK COO Derek McManus. “That’s why we’re proud to be investing in 4G connectivity for more than 330 rural areas by the end of this year. Technology never stands still, which is why we are always looking for the right partners and investing in our future network. Whether trialling 5G to support a future-proof, mobile Britain, or ensuring the remotest parts of rural Britain can connect to 4G, for O2, this is about continuing to invest in all areas – not one at the cost of the other.”

“4G coverage is improving all the time, but there’s more to do, particularly in rural areas,” said Digital Minister Margot James. “We’ve already reformed planning laws to make it easier and cheaper to install and upgrade digital infrastructure, and it’s great to see O2 and the rest of industry responding to ensure more people in rural Britain can share the brilliant benefits of 4G connectivity.”

Thanks partly to an enhanced mobile experience, O2 has pointed to a report from Development Economics which suggests tourism, transport and manufacturing segments could receive a financial boost with improved connectivity. Perhaps this is one of the most notorious statistics associated with the digital divide, but Development Economics predicts connectivity parity could add as much as £141 million a year to the 14,000 rural businesses who are missing out on the full digital experience.

Although this is a positive step forward, let’s not forget O2 has a lot of catching up to do, it certainly isn’t uncommon to see the brand slumping at the bottom of the mobile performance rankings. Opensignal’s most recent report assessing the performance of the four UK MNOs had O2 sat in last place for all categories aside from latency (3G and 4G) and availability, where it was second behind EE. Back in August, Rootmetrics also had O2 at the bottom of the pile for almost every category.

The performance of the network is certainly a dent in the O2 pride, but it has still managed to claim top-spot in the market share leagues. Although MNOs should stride towards creating the best possible experience for customers, O2’s top and bottom standings demonstrate buying decisions are more than performance orientated. The big differentiator between O2 and rest of the UK MNOs is its loyalty programme, Priority, which does appear to be paying dividends, while Giffgaff is still proving a successful venture to attract a new SIM-only audience. Such is the success of Giffgaff over the last few years, Three has creating its own version in Smartie, while Vodafone has launched Voxi.

That said, building the customer experience in rural areas of the UK will only add to the success of the telco, creating a more interesting proposition for customers which might have ignored the brand in the past. O2 has been swimming against the tide when it comes to convergence trends, choosing to focus exclusively on mobile, a decision which is increasingly looking justified.

Government research suggests digital divide plans might actually be working

When you compare the digital divide to other countries around the world, it looks like nothing more than a minor crack in the UK. That said, it is still there and new research suggests it is getting smaller.

Before you give the mish-mash-of-no-one-wants-jobs Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport too much credit, you have to bear in mind this is research which has been funded and influenced by the department itself. That said, government initiatives do seem to have spurred on the lethargic Openreach/BT into action in the countryside taking the number of households which are able to access superfast broadband across the UK to 95.39%.

“Our rollout of superfast broadband across the UK has been the most challenging infrastructure project in a generation but is one of our greatest successes,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “We are reaching thousands more homes and businesses every week, that can now reap the clear and tangible benefits that superfast broadband provides. We are helping to ensure the downfall of the digital divide.”

In terms of closing the digital divide, it is worth reminding ourselves every now and then what this actually means. It is more than simply cat videos streaming faster than a laser pointer on the carpet, but accessibility to education and employment opportunities. With businesses increasingly reliant on the internet for everyday processes such as cloud-based services and infrastructure, connectivity decides whether a company opens up an office in one place or another, or the competitiveness of a regional. Functional companies create jobs, which dominos success throughout the local economy.

The initiative was first launched 2010/11 in response to concerns commercial deployment of superfast broadband would fail to reach areas which were not deemed commercially attractive. Backed by £530 million of subsidies (and an additional £250 in 2015), telcos were enticed to rollout out relevant infrastructure, though early years were plagued with claims BT was rebuilding its monopoly with public funds as it won the majority of early contracts. While the criticism of BT’s dominance continues to be an issue for some, it is worth noting £500 million in subsidies has been returned to the public purse due to uptake being higher than expected.

In terms of the impact on local firms, the report estimates postcodes benefitting from subsidised coverage saw employment rise by 0.8% and turnover grow by 1.2% in response to improved infrastructure. This has resulted in an additional 49,000 jobs for local economies, plus an additional £9 billion in annual revenues. When looking at productivity gains, better connectivity essentially means each employee makes an additional £1,390 per year on average for the firm.

Government Table One

As you can see from the tables above, the ‘other’ regions are still growing at a faster rate, though you have to question how big the digital divide would be today without the telcos being ‘encouraged’ to invest in rural areas with government subsidies. Growth is a positive, as it would be a fair assumption the statistics would be in decline without improved connectivity.

Education and health and social work were the sectors which really benefited here (worker turnover increased 4.7% and 3.7% respectively), though subsidised coverage raised turnover per worker in the manufacturing sector by around 0.8%. With improved connectivity now in place in the manufacturing space the opportunity to demonstrate further benefits through IoT and smart-factory environments is much more apparent. The manufacturing segment might be a slow-burner with the next wave of technological advancements proving to be the gamechanger.

With a benefit to cost ratio of £1.96 per £1 of gross public sector spending, it is difficult to argue with the success here. Yes, the numbers could be better, though as the report states the net benefits of the programme does not include any value associated with the future use of the infrastructure, you could conclude the value has been considerably underplayed. Governments do not often earn plaudits, but this does genuinely seem like an initiative which has been well managed, delivering on the stated promises.

Work is not complete on closing the digital divide, the South West for instance is still underserved for example, though it is difficult to argue that the government hasn’t done a bad job overall.

US appeals court tells FCC that poor people are allowed broadband

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has lost a skirmish in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals following moves from the watchdog attempting to remove a broadband subsidy for low income families in Tribal areas.

The removal of the Lifeline subsidy has been a contentious decision from Pai and his Republican cronies leading the FCC since it was announced in November last year, though the courts have now blocked it. While there has been strong resistance from the likes of Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn (now former), this is a notable win for Democratic leaning politicians and public servants, as the momentum has been favouring the Pai movement in recent months.

“Petitioners have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their arguments that the facilities-based and rural areas limitations contained in the Order are arbitrary and capricious,” the order states. “In particular, petitioners contend that the Federal Communications Commission failed to account for a lack of alternative service providers for many tribal customers.”

While the FCC proved there would not be a ‘mass disconnection’ in the regions should the subsidy be removed, the court has pointed to a lack of competition in the region. These are areas which are traditionally underserved, with the subsidy going some way to aid connectivity, as a watchdog and public-funded organization, surely this is one of the fundamental objectives; to assist and serve US citizens where necessary; clearly Pai disagrees.

The original plan from the FCC was to ban the subsidy from being used to purchase broadband services from resellers, though it could be used with network owners. Removing this $25 subsidy would have left the applicants with only a $9.25 option, which the courts did not deem sufficient. Without the option of purchasing services through resellers, competition would be drastically reduced and the opportunity for market abuse would be rife.

The case, which was initially brought to the courts by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and Oceti Sakowin Tribal Utility Authority, while also being supported by several non-profits, creates a useful precedent in those opposing the Pai reign. Although Pai is seemingly attempting to scale back all regulation, intervention and market influence at the FCC, the coalition suing were able to demonstrate changes to the FCC’s Lifeline programme would result in people losing telecom service; Pai opponents throughout the US will be looking at this case with much interest.

One interesting point which can be taken from the ruling is that less regulation and market intervention will not necessarily lead to investment.

“Furthermore, the Federal Communications Commission has not shown that the historical record supports its assertion that these new requirements will encourage development of communications infrastructure in underserved areas, thus preventing mass disconnection.”

The principles of the Republican leaning officials is less regulation offers market freedoms and room to innovate. Removing red tape would actually encourage telcos to invest in the infrastructure the country so desperately needs, though it seems the court does not agree with this theory. This rhetoric has fuelled the scaling back of power and influence at the FCC, though such comments from the court will certainly take a bit of the wind out of the Pai sails.

Alphabet’s blue sky thinkers pen first Loon deal in Kenya

The Loon team have signed its first commercial deal with Telkom Kenya to deploy a pilot 4G network in suburban and rural areas of the country.

Having dropped the ‘Project’ part of the name, the Loon team now operates as an independent company within the Alphabet business, and does not look that ridiculous any more. Why didn’t anyone else figure out balloons would be an efficient means to deliver connectivity to some of the world’s more difficult not spots.

“As Loon, our mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Loon. “We couldn’t be more excited to start our journey in Kenya, and we look forward to working with mobile network partners worldwide to deliver on the promise of Loon.”

The deal with Telkom Kenya will kick off in 2019, and is being touted by the team as an alternative to the expensive job of building ground-based infrastructure. The balloons will be 60,000 feet in the air, on the edge of space, focusing on the central regions of Kenya which have been previously difficult to service, due to mountainous and inaccessible terrain. The exact coverage areas will be determined in the coming months, and subject to the requisite regulatory approvals.

“Telkom is focused on bringing innovative products and solutions to the Kenyan market,” said Telkom Kenya CEO Aldo Mareuse. “With this association with Loon, we will be partnering with a pioneer in the use of high altitude balloons to provide LTE coverage across larger areas in Kenya. We will work very hard with Loon, to deliver the first commercial mobile service, as quickly as possible, using Loon’s balloon-powered Internet in Africa.”

Alphabet is a company which certainly does specialise in absurd ideas, though this is one of the few moon-shots which looks to have genuine potential in the near future. Although it has been used to help provide connectivity in regions struck by natural disasters, this is one of the first signs of the long-term and sustainable presence of Loon. For telcos who are considering satellite as a means to tackle the rural not spots, Loon could certainly provide a more cost and time effective means to meet demand.

Back in October, Alphabet was given permission to use 30 experimental balloons to provide connectivity to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which have been ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, leaving around 90% of the territories without coverage. While temporary coverage following natural disasters will be a continued use case for Loon, executives will certainly be comforted they don’t have to sit around and wait for a natural disaster to hit.

Alphabet is one of the internet giants which has been consistently searching for ways to diversify the business model, though this is not the first time connectivity was a major play. US telcos might have been relieved to see the end of the Google Fibre experiment, though this venture looks to be far more sustainable for Alphabet. Should the Telkom Kenya project be successful, Loon will start to attract interest around the world.

FCC kicks off rural broadband auction

The FCC has giving the greenlight for the Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction, with the window for applications ending on March 30.

With $1.98 billion available over the next decade to support the closing of the digital divide across the US. Officially known as Auction 903, the initiative aims to bring broadband to as many as 1 million homes and small businesses across 20 states which are deemed to be underserved at the moment.

“This is a unique opportunity for broadband providers to expand their service,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “More important, this is a unique opportunity to bring digital opportunity to parts of rural America that have been bypassed by the broadband revolution. So I hope that all eligible providers will give this opportunity a hard look and choose to participate.”

Applicants to the fund will have to demonstrate they can do the most with the smallest amount of investment if they are to be successful. The tables below demonstrate how the FCC will distribute the funding against performance standards. But as a general rule, the more offered and the lower the applied for funding, the more interested the FCC will be.

Rural

In terms of the deployment, successful applicants must offer commercially at least one voice and one broadband service meeting the relevant service requirements to the required number of locations. When it comes to milestones, 40% of the required number of locations must meet the service performance metrics by the end of the third year, plus an additional 20% per year after that, before hitting 100% by the end of the 10 year period.

And just to make sure the farmers aren’t getting ripped off, the FCC will continue to benchmark the offered rates against the urban equivalent. You can see the methodology the FCC uses to judge want would be considered reasonable rates here. Those who do not meet the milestones or offer what would be considered reasonable rates will face the threat of legal action as the FCC promises to recover the funds.

Closing the digital divide between the rural and urban communities is a challenge which has plagued the FCC and US government for some time, and we would be surprised if this funding makes a significant difference. As long as the major telcos are trying to recoup lost profits, the focus will be on the more profitable regions of the US.

Virgin Media to connect the unconnected, if the price is right

Virgin Media has announced it will roll out its broadband offering to 12 villages in the Test and Dun Valley area, as it sets its sights on tackling the rural connectivity challenge, just as long as it’s not too risky.

The move will come as a bit of a concern for Openreach which has largely enjoyed a competition-free environment in the countryside due to the expensive job of delivering connectivity. Whether the introduction of an alternative service will force Openreach to actually start spending on its network remains to be seen, but it would not be a surprise to see a Virgin Media push elsewhere in the future.

“We are extremely excited about our ultrafast broadband expansion in the Test and Dun Valleys – this is a new way of delivering our gigabit-ready network,” said Rob Evans, Managing Director of the Virgin Media Lightning Programme. “This has been a brilliant example of us working hand in hand with the local community to deliver a solution which works for us both.  We look forward to doing more of these in the future.”

The last couple of months have seen small steps towards closing the digital divide, not only from Virgin Media but also Vodafone. Vodafone has committed to rolling out fibre networks in 12 cities and larger towns which are deemed as being underserved as another challenge to the Openreach cartel, though you have to give credit to Virgin Media for tackling less commercially attractive areas. But not too much credit though.

While Vodafone has committed to rolling out full-fibre networks in these 12 cities irrelevant of pre-determined demand, Virgin Media is taking the less risky approach. No work will take place until the telco can guarantee the countryside dwellers will swell its back accounts. It might be trying to paint the picture of the hero coming to the rescue, but this hero’s work does not come for free.

For Virgin Media to even think about bothering with the famers there would have to be registered interest from 30% of the residents. But this interest is only table stakes, for any work to actually happen there would have to be a financial commitment. In this example, 1,000 residents across the Test and Dun Valley area had to fully-commit to becoming a Virgin Media customer.

This should of course not be seen as an unusual business practise, it is trying to minimize risk which is sensible, but don’t take the hero image too seriously. The grand plan should also be taken with a pinch of salt.

Virgin Media notes that the area did not initially meet usual commercial requirements for expansion, due to the rural environment and a lack of significant broadband infrastructure already being in place. This might well turn out to be the exceptional rather than the rule, an exercise for the PR department to get a few nice photos and headlines, as Virgin Media seemingly searches for the regions where the upgrade work wouldn’t be that difficult.

So if you live in an area where there are slow connection speeds, broadband infrastructure already in place and it isn’t too rural, Virgin Media might be coming to your rescue before too long. You’ll also have to round-up some support to offer the telco a guaranteed payment, otherwise there might not be any interest.

The whole image looks a bit less like an Arthurian night riding into the sunset to tackle the evil dragon and more like a wild-west bounty hunter on the search for the next payday. Not necessarily a bad thing, but don’t get fooled by the philanthropic messaging.

Vodafone goes mini on the big question of rural connectivity

5G might be the hot topic for 2018, but Vodafone’s successful trial of a new 4G mini mobile mast reminds us the telcos haven’t finished their 4G mission just yet.

The trial itself took place in Porthcurno on the southern Cornish coast of the UK, with the team claiming to have demonstrated mobile data speeds of more than 200Mbps, as well as a strong voice signal. What these speeds actually look like when the mast is available for use of the general public remain to be seen, but it is certainly a positive step forward for the digital have-nots of the UK.

The telescopic mini mast is eight metres high when extended to its tallest point, roughly half the height of a traditional mast. It takes six months to get up and running, a third of the time with the full-size masts, and does not require a technology cabinet to house the power supply and electronics.

“We’re working hard to connect customers across the UK and our new mini mast will help provide 4G in places where other networks struggle to reach, while minimising the visual and environmental impact,” said Vodafone UK’s Chief Technology Officer Scott Petty.

“It forms part of our major investment in our network and services to provide our customers reliable coverage where they live, work and travel.”

The mini mast at Vodafone HQ when we visited last year

The mini mast at Vodafone HQ when we visited last year

When telcos such as Vodafone are simultaneously launching gigacities while also trialling product to bring basic 4G connectivity to rural locations, you can see why there is frustrations from the farmers. Mobile World Congress is just around the corner, where the imminent commercial launch of 5G will be a crucial talking point, but the people Porthcurno have just been gifted the glories of strong voice signal for the first time. The contrast is quite striking.

Some sceptical individuals might think the digital divide is nothing more than a myth created by those troublesome activists who love finding new sticks to beat the telcos, but those individuals are likely to be the ones who rarely venture outside of the M25. Abysmal connectivity in some communities across the UK is an equation the telcos have never been able to balance, as the lucrative urban environments will always win out in the profit-hungry boardrooms.

“The quality of mobile phone signal in West Cornwall is a subject that is regularly raised with me, as is the need to protect and preserve our countryside,” said Derek Thomas, MP for West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. “This new mast offers the opportunity to reduce the visual impact of phone masts, whilst addressing people’s desire for improved connectivity.”

The fact it is Vodafone launching such an offering should come as little surprise. While it has been known as one of the better performers in the capital, Vodafone is commonly associated with poor signal and performance anywhere else.

The mini mast is a good idea from Vodafone and serves as a timely reality check for those who are getting swept up in the 5G euphoria. This might be the technology which will keep the telcos above the rising tide of utilization, but the 4G rollout is not finished yet.

Ofcom still has its eye on BT in case it gets any funny ideas

Ofcom has released its planned programme of work for 2018/19 and BT/Openreach will continue to operate under a microscope.

Talk of the BT/Openreach separation has died down over the last couple of months, perhaps because the industry got bored of discussing nothing else, but Ofcom has reminded CEO Gavin Patterson and his cronies it hasn’t forgotten about keeping tabs. Let’s hope the temptation of yesteryear isn’t creeping into the BT boardroom as pressure mounts after a pretty average 12 months.

“We will actively measure, monitor and report on progress related to the legal separation of Openreach from BT,” Ofcom has stated. “In particular, we will assess how far Openreach is improving its network and delivering better quality of service.”

After 12 months of scandals and under-whelming growth, some sceptical individuals might suggest the paper separation between the two might not be enough to ensure parity across the industry. Perhaps this is a gentle nudge, a smile and a wink from Ofcom to BT; we haven’t forgotten about this prolonged saga and we plan to keep an eye on things to make sure it’s all above board.

But before anyone accuses Ofcom of paying too much attention to the former monopoly, it has also put out a warning to the other telcos as well. The watchdog is keeping an eye on you lot as well, just to make sure you’re helping the farmers connect their cows, just as much as you’re helping hipsters in Shoreditch pay for their deconstructed coffee with their smartphone.

“As part of our work to improve mobile coverage across the country, we will ensure that operators meet their coverage obligations,” Ofcom said. “These are designed to increase the availability of mobile networks, particularly in rural and remote areas. We will also consider new coverage requirements when we award new spectrum licences.”

Mobile spectrum has of course been a hot topic of debate over the last few months, but how Ofcom manages to use the spectrum carrot to incentivise telcos to meet their coverage promises will be an interesting one. These are after all commercial organizations with an understandable commitment to deliver profitable operations, therefore some might need to be coerced into more actively supporting connectivity in the more rural and remote locations.

Perhaps this could be factored into the spectrum auctions? Placing conditions on rural connectivity on the more attractive bands would certainly make telcos take the challenge more seriously.

This is just a draft of course, plans are open for consultation over the next couple of months, before being finalised in March. If you would like to provide feedback on Ofcom’s plans, you can do so by following this link.

FCC tries to remove Lifeline for poor people

What have poor people done to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai? Perhaps he misread his job description, as the latest move from the FCC would seem to geared towards widening the digital divide.

This week the FCC voted to scale back the federal Lifeline programme, an initiative which assists poorer families in accessing the digital world. It started with, telephone service but was rolled out to broadband last year. While a $9.25 subsidy might not sound like a lot, for those who live on the breadline, it probably means the difference between internet and no internet. That said, Pai has seemingly decided the world of social media, online banking and cat videos is not for poor people.

The changes include a spending cap, which could mean those who qualify for the subsidy would not receive it, and also a ban on resellers offering the subsidy as part of a deal. Essentially, only those who own their own infrastructure would be allowed to offer the subsidy, which could result in countless families have to cancel their current subscription.

The ban for resellers is currently out for public comment, but it would effectively reduce competition and push consumers towards the established players; AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile USA, and Sprint. According to Public Knowledge, an advocacy group trying to bridge the digital divide, 70% of those on the Lifeline programme get their internet through such resellers. Perhaps some will not be able to find a carrier in their area which offers the subsidy. Apparently they will just have to go without the internet.

Pai seems to be sending a very clear message; the internet and the digital world is not for poor people. Bad poor people, stay away from my internet. Be richer and then I’ll let you into my club.

Republican Commissioners have pointed towards a Government Accountability Office report which highlighted that fraud was commonplace within the Lifeline programme, but surely this report was supposed to suggest the FCC should sort out its processes. Some enrolments were filed in the names of dead people, which does suggest there are nefarious characters out there, but also internal processes are pretty poor. We can’t imagine the intended result was to scrap the scheme and exclude poor people from the internet.

Of course, the voting went exactly as you would expect. The Republican Commissioners voting with Pai and his mission to keep the poor in their place, while the Democrats voted against. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was clearly not happy, unleashing a stream of tweets, blasting Pai and his quest to cleanse the internet of the unworthy.

Naturally, Clyburn and her cronies are going to try and make the situation as awkward as possible for Pai and his journey to rid the digital society of lesser humans, but we have some sympathy here. The Democrats have spent the last couple of years building the FCC in their own image, and Pai is chopping it down piece-by-piece. All Clyburn can do is watch and tweet.

Clyburn Tweet Clyburn tweet 3 Clyburn tweet 2

Without rethinking the telecom workforce, rural broadband access is a pipedream

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Malik Zakaria, founder and CEO of Field Engineer argues that we need to change the approach to telecoms engineers if to achieve future goals.

Recent reports by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) show that about 10 percent of the U.S. population lacks access to internet. That may not sound like a large number, but taking a look outside of the coasts, 39 percent of the U.S. rural population lack access to 25 Mbps down /3 Mbps up service.

Despite U.S. government subsidies via programs like FCC’s Connect America Fund, progress of rural broadband initiatives is slow. The FCC stated in its most recent report that “broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” This statement could be revised to replace “Americans” with any other country.

Historically, the consensus has been that the biggest barrier to fixing this problem is a capital one – that building the infrastructure simply can’t be done in an economically feasible way. A study by Informa showed that 52 percent of operators said that the cost of building backhaul is the greatest challenge to providing rural connectivity. This logic has continued to play out in the news as the Trump Administration talks about its large infrastructure plan in the U.S., and globally as the likes of Colt, Microsoft and British Telecom have made public commitments to tackling rural broadband access.

But broadband is just like any other infrastructure – it needs to be operated to be usable, and that means there is long-term labor demand at hand for which must be accounted and planned. As a former network engineer, I know that workforce alignment and preparation is oftentimes the part of a project that gets overlooked.

This is the great irony of the issue – we need to develop a skilled workforce to address what is arguably the greatest economic opportunity that many countries have on the table right now. For the U.S. alone, an Information Age Economics report estimated that a 2.2 percent increase in GDP would result directly from the development of mobile broadband – by 2017. Given that this bump hasn’t happened, we are clearly behind. So, it’s time we take some action focused on the workforce, starting with these two steps:

1. Rethink the labor model

Most engineer jobs today are completed using external contractors. The contractors bid on very specific projects, but the work in broadband deployment and maintenance is very fluid across locations and skills. This means that oftentimes new bids have to be issued when those changes happen, causing delays.

Instead, we should focus on labor as beholden to the individual and not the contractor. When we do that, similar to the on-demand service models of Lyft and TaskRabbit, we can better take advantage of available capacity in the workforce. Take for example, a national retail chain looking to implement Wi-Fi across their restaurants. With no field engineers on the ground in remote locations around the U.S. with the right skillset to complete the work, the retailer leveraged the on-demand engineer model to ensure that local, freelance field engineers could be deployed to specific sites and complete the job. This particular project is typically slated for months and was completed in just weeks using this approach.

This model works in part because of the untapped field engineer workforce. With the recent struggles of the telecommunications industry, less people have had full-time employment as carriers have laid-off employees to manage declining revenues – the U.S. Department of Labor reports a 200,000-employee decline between 2006 and 2016.

2. Reskill the workforce

In addition to better using the field engineers who are available and ready to work, we need more skilled engineers, and fast. With the insatiable demand for data and the development of 5G, we are headed toward a skilled workforce shortage.

Currently wireless infrastructure communications skills can be learned in undergraduate programs or in the field by carriers, OEMs and industry advocacy groups. But, evidence shows that the skills available don’t match the jobs in demand. According to data from the Field Engineer platform, 34 percent of communications jobs available can’t be filled immediately because an engineer with the matching skills is not available. At the time of publishing this article, the top types of trained engineers in demand are network engineers, wireless engineers, security engineers, datacenter and field engineers in wired and radio frequency wireless networks.

While there are many factors involved on the path to expanding rural broadband access, talent is an essential component to moving projects forward. Without the right people on the ground to complete projects, the work simply cannot be done. As an industry, we have a responsibility to consider alternative models, such as on-demand labor, as we work with communities and public sector stakeholders to close this access gap. Let’s work together to close the gap – it’s not just good for the residents and businesses in our rural communities; it’s good for all of us.