People loook at 5G phones at the Samsung booth during the CES tech show, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020,
Wireless carriers have already started to advertise around it, and tech prognosticators have begun offering visions — terrifying, revolutionary and everything in between — about the kind of future that 5G wireless networks will deliver.
But who's going to build and maintain those networks?
Sleep-deprived senators took up the issue Wednesday morning following a lengthy and acrimonious session in the presidential impeachment proceedings that stretched past 1 a.m.
While there was little to disagree about in the general importance of promoting policies that will ensure the 5G workforce is sufficient to ensure that the next phase of wireless broadband reaches every U.S. household, that path forward is anything but clear.
From the top, 5G is somewhat different from previous iterations of wireless infrastructure, in that those networks will rely more heavily on small-cell installations and other high-tech components than their predecessors.
But traditional cell towers will still be a key part of the infrastructure, and industry estimates suggest that there are 20,000 jobs waiting for tower climbers.
Add to that a growing — and still unknown — demand for network architects and technicians, along with other skilled and unskilled positions essential for ultra-fast wireless infrastructure, and you have a potential roadblock for the next phase of the broadband revolution.
Members of the Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony about encouraging trial programs involving apprenticeships and partnerships with community colleges, which witnesses argued could do more to promote wireless infrastructure as a viable middle-class career path.
Jimmy Miller, chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors, offered a long list of the challenges of attracting young workers into the industry, starting with the obvious.
"Working at heights is not normal; it takes a special person to do that" Miller said, describing the particular unpleasantness that workers experience when a rain storm rolls through the area where they are working on a tower, stuck hundreds of feet up in the air.
"It can be a harsh environment to work in," he said.
Then there is the not insignificant element of the job that requires telecom workers to travel great distances, often for days at a time, to a remote job site.
Those two aspects of the job are more or less fixed — to achieve the goal of delivering high-speed broadband service to remote and rural areas, telecom crews will need to travel and climb poles to do the work.
But more people might be interested in that line of work if they had more exposure to the industry, and came to see it as a career path with decent earning potential and prospects for advancement, Miller argued.
His group is advocating for legislation that would create a grant program to fund job training in telecom construction and service at community colleges, vocational schools and military organizations.
Other legislative proposals include a measure to require the Federal Communications Commission to empanel an advisory council to help it craft policies to promote workforce development.
A labor shortage, the nominal subject of Wednesday's hearing, is just one component of the bigger challenge around the digital divide. Federal, state and local policymakers have a raft of other proposals to help make ubiquitous, affordable 5G service a reality.
One proposal that has drawn support from a host of groups, including many progressive tech-policy organizations, is the Digital Equity Act, which would establish grant-making programs to fund projects by states and individuals or groups to promote issues like broadband mapping, digital literacy and expanding online access to social services.
On hand to champion that bill was Harold Feld, senior vice president at the digital rights group Public Knowledge, and a longtime critic of many of the policy positions advocated by the telecom sector over the years.
Feld plugged the Digital Equity Act, but also had a warning for lawmakers who might be swayed by urgent industry warnings about falling behind other nations in the "race to 5G." Feld noted that the wireless sector has been through numerous distinct technology transitions, each of which has "been accompanied by stakeholders clamoring for changes to give themselves and their specific business models advantages."
"This frequently takes the form of dire warnings that unless the FCC or Congress acts immediately to satisfy these industry demands, we will fall behind rival countries and therefore suffer some unspecific but certainly dreadful consequence," Feld said.
He urges a healthy skepticism when considering the types of allowances wireless carriers might seek — things like access to spectrum on favorable terms or deregulatory exemptions that allow them to bypass some of the impact assessments typically required before breaking ground on an infrastructure project.
"Despite these warnings, our nearly 30-year streak as global leader in wireless technology remains intact," Feld said. "Why? In no small part because Congress has consistently resisted the hype from the wireless industry and maintained a steady, balanced course on policy."