The Surge for Tower Climbers to Build a 5G Network

5G, one of the next-generation of mobile communications networks, will dramatically change the way network infrastructure is designed and deployed. This new wave of technology is going to require many newly qualified engineers and technicians with the proper training and personal protective equipment (PPE) to help them get the job done safely. But what exactly is involved and who is needed? Are we ready for what is next? Let’s learn more…

What is 5G and Why is it Needed?

5G, also referred to as 5th generation mobile network technology, aims to deliver data at a lower cost per bit compared to the current networks. It is expected to provide 20 times the peak data rate (speed), it will lower the responsiveness gap between devices by 10 times (latency), greatly improve capacity and deliver three times more spectral efficiency than the current, widely used 4G LTE network.[1]

5G will not replace 4G—it simply enables a larger diversity of applications that 4G cannot perform. There are two major factors driving the development of 5G: the need to support the increasing demand for broadband services, and the desire to support or create services for the Internet of Things (IoT) that connect all kinds of programs and SMART devices.

How Does 5G Work?

5G uses high-frequency waves that support faster speed and higher amounts of data but at a shorter range. It uses small cell site technology with antennas placed within 500ft of each other. A small cell in a 5G network is the base station that serves a critical role in the overall network.

5G cannot be used to its fullest potential without the wide deployment of these small cells, antennas, towers, wiring, etc. Many states have legislation pending or have passed laws concerning the fees associated with installing these cells, as well as where and how they can be mounted to buildings, poles and other types of structures throughout cities and other places.

5G small cells are complementary to antennas on towers, fairly simple in design and can be installed in less than a few hours. However, many cells need to be installed within a short range of one another for the network to work. The cells can be positioned on light poles, the tops of buildings, street lights, electrical poles, and city poles that are wood or steel. However, there is a lack of skilled telecommunications utility engineers to install and maintain this 5G network.

“The wireless industry is experiencing a major labor shortage and a skills gap,” said Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO of Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) when reporting about the future of 5G. “Wireless jobs are changing and they are changing incredibly fast. We are hearing from most of our wireless infrastructure employers that they have a hard time filling positions with applicants that have the skills they need.”

The WIA published a white paper[2] last year showing that “…comprehensive job training programs are crucial to the successful deployment of the wireless networks we need going forward.”[3] It’s estimated that over 800,000 cells are needed to build this 5G network in the U.S. that will support millions of devices that transmit trillions of megabytes (MBs) of data.[4]

Enter Linemen Workers and Tower Climbers

Tower climbers, lineworkers, line installers, and line repairers, install or repair electrical power systems and telecommunications cables, including fiber optics. “Tower climbers are really the backbone behind the network. They climb infrastructures, whether its rooftops or major towers, and they actually assemble and construct the equipment on top of these cell towers that we all use every day,” said Kevin Zvokel, head of networks at Ericsson North America, a major communications carrier, during an interview with CNBC.

“It’s a tough job — our climbers spend long days in remote areas building infrastructure,” Zvokel said. “So they need a passion to be in this environment, to work with technology, to work in unusual situations — we have towers that are 700 feet or more in the air. You have to have a little bit of passion … to go out and build these networks.”[5] Tower climbers, known as ‘tower dogs’ in the industry, need to be ambitious about scaling all kinds of structures in all kinds of conditions and to abandon any fear they have of heights.[6]

In 2016, there were 227,000 lineworkers in the U.S. The projected percentage change in employment from 2016 to 2026 is 8% or 18,400 additional jobs will be added and needed to be filled.[7] To meet this demand, different associations have been aggressively trying to recruit new workers. The median annual wage, as of May 2018, has gone up to $65,880 for tower climbers and line installers.[8]

Training and PPE Recommendations

Given the highly specialized and dangerous nature of the work that tower workers perform, employee training and preparation are critical. Proper training of tower climbers is essential. Training courses typically last multiple days and consist of a classroom component and a practical training component, with a final assessment of skills and knowledge. Topics covered during these courses typically include: fall protection procedures, climbing safety and planning, hazard assessments as well as basic emergency and rescue protocols.

Telecommunications line installers and repairers have seen an increase in access to long-term, on-the-job training courses via trade schools and the opening of more specialized training schools and facilities. Once trained, telecommunications line installers and repairers typically perform the following tasks:

  • Install, maintain, or repair telecommunications equipment
  • Inspect or test lines or cables
  • Lay underground cable, including fiber optic lines, directly in trenches
  • Pull cables in underground conduit
  • Install aerial cables, including over lakes or across rivers
  • Operate power equipment when installing and repairing poles, towers, and lines

The adventure of scaling structures to help provide telecommunications, electricity and other valuable utilities that the public heavily relies on can be well worth it for those up to the task. “The best part of my job is probably getting to travel as much as I’ve gotten to over the years, and getting to build things I never thought I’d be building,” said Jordan Robinson, a top hand at Ericsson. “You are constantly learning something new — it’s a new industry and it’s changing so fast.”[9]

That being said, tower climbing and line work are commonly thought to be some of the most dangerous jobs out there. These workers risk falling from great heights, being hit by dropped objects, structural collapse, bad weather conditions, electric shocks, burns, and other injuries while on the job every day. Some of these incidents can even be fatal. Read one of our recent blog articles as we look at the challenges and rewards of lineworkers.

Tower climbers, line workers, and other telecommunication specialists need the right PPE to help them perform the installation of these 5G cells safely. This includes using safety equipment such as:

  • Harnesses
  • Twin-leg lanyards
  • Work positioning or resting belt
  • Self-retracting lifelines (SRLs)
  • Vertical safety systems that meet the most recent Walking-Working standards issued by OSHA.
  • Electrically insulated climbing style safety helmets with a chin-strap for head protection
  • Anti-fog safety eyewear
  • Hearing protection

If you need help picking the right PPE, fall protection equipment, or finding training support to help protect you on the job, contact us for assistance.

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