Skills shortage thwarting fibre rollout growth


According to the FTTH Council Europe, full fibre deployments have been ramping up in much of Western Europe. The main movers in its most recent Market Panorama report were France, United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. The total number of homes passed with fibre connectivity in September 2021 compared to the previous year totaled more than 22 million.

Fibre has long been touted as the most durable technology to bring connectivity to an increased number of customers and communities. Fibre can bring social and economic benefits for rural and urban settings. The European Union’s overarching broadband strategy is to deliver a European Gigabit Society by 2025 and connect European citizens and businesses with very high-capacity networks by 2030. This notably includes access to gigabit connectivity for European households and uninterrupted 5G coverage.

Service providers continue to rollout network builds, either by sharing infrastructure with others, or entering into financial partnerships. But can network operators across Europe sustain this increased demand?

Skills shortage poses a fibre dilemma

Players across the industry face a significant challenge. Labor shortage is unavoidable. This issue is affecting installation capacity and causing notable delays due to missing installers. With many telcos relying on subcontractors to carry out work, those with the necessary skillset are in short supply and there remains a lack of trained fibre engineers and technicians in the industry with the capabilities needed to deliver the ambitious fibre rollout plans.

The labor skills shortage across Europe is nothing new. In the face of unprecedented demand for ultra-fast connectivity to power e-learning, e-health and the remote worker, the number of Fibre-To-The-Home/Building (FTTH/B) deployments continues to climb. Attaining lofty Government targets and company quotas is the end-goal and ultimate objective for telcos across Europe.

With more than 100 service providers deploying fibre-based networks across the UK alone, having access to the fibre engineers with the necessary skill sets is not an easy feat. Of course, the future looks brighter. Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA) has a Labor and Skills Special Interest Group with the sole purpose of getting more people interested in working in the fibre and telecoms sector. It recruits and retains those interested by educating at schools, and training and upskilling those within the industry. But this does not provide a quick solution to the current predicament.

The Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) revealed last year that the fiber industry would need around 850,000 new skilled technicians to plan, build, install, and maintain the networks being built over the next five years in the United States. The organization created an OpTIC Path training curriculum to train new fibere technicians across 39 US states and it involves a 2,000 hour apprenticeship. Governments in Europe need to follow this lead.

Innovative solutions at the ready

Alongside limited construction availability and capacity, another challenge is supply chain issues. But manufacturers are finding solutions by opening their own facilities’ domestically to avoid the long-term waits with shipping from other regions that have been commonplace since the global pandemic. That is why many telcos are beginning to train their engineers in-house. But this will take time and be expensive, which can be potentially damaging for FTTH targets.

Operators are keenly focused on introducing innovative techniques and methods to help pass more homes. Solutions that require a reduced skill set and time for installing, notably solutions that require no blowing or fibre splicing are advisable. Prysmian Group is continuing to develop smaller, higher quality pre-connectorized products to help broadband networks meet the demand for fibre connections.

By developing products to make processes easier, the technology can be installed with a reduced skillset needed and existing infrastructure can be utilized. Bend-insensitive fibre optic cables such as Prysmian’s Sirocco have a reduced diameter and can be installed by less-practised technicians to reap significant OPEX savings.

There is a clear need for smaller products that can bend easier to enable faster and more reliable deployments. While not all countries are implementing broadband networks at the same time, Prysmian is leveraging our local production facilities, and using capacity from elsewhere to fulfil this capacity. In other countries, we can partner with their workforces and combine our knowledge to roll out new fibre builds en masse.

Innovative solutions requiring a reduced skillset are key to delivering gigabit and multi-gigabit connectivity in the midst of the fibre skills shortage.