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Nokia UK CEO: Where are the bodies to build the networks coming from?

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Cormac Whelan, Nokia’s UK CEO raised an interesting point in a recent conversation with Telecoms.com. Where are the employees to implement ambitious rollout plans?

As it currently stands, the UK is rapidly upgrading its nationwide broadband network. Virgin Media is expanding its fibre footprint by more than 100,000 premises a quarter, while Openreach is doing the same number each month. CityFibre has got approval to expand its fibre footprint to 70 cities across the UK, and various different alt-nets are scaling as well. Toob is growing in Southampton, Gigaclear is growing in the South-West and HyperOptic is scaling in London.

Arguably, the UK has one of the fastest growing fibre initiatives across Europe. Yes, it missed the memo which was sent to everyone else years ago, but it is finally arriving to the fibre feast. There are calls to increase the pace further, see BoJo’s ridiculous comments, but you have to wonder how much quicker the industry can actually go.

“Where are the bodies going to come from?” Whelan asked during a conversation at the Connected Britain conference in London. It’s a simple question, but one few have actually asked.

Last year, Openreach recruited 3,000 staff to help with its fibre plans, and it plans to add another 3,000 across 2019. Virgin Media’s Project Lightning is continuing to progress, and it is recruiting. If the alt-nets want to continue to scale, they will also need more bodies. But, finding these individuals is not simply a case of slapping a hard-hat on Joe Bloggs. These are specialised careers with a lot of training, soon enough the candidates are going to start drying up.

One of the big issues facing the industry, as Whelan points out, is the attractiveness of working elsewhere. The UK is a cosmopolitan society, but that is changing. With Brexit on the horizon, the UK is becoming less appealing to EU workers. There are more EU citizens arriving on UK shores than leaving, but immigration is at its lowest levels since 2013.

The big question which will need to be asked is whether it is more prosperous for workers who have the skills attractive to telcos to work in the UK or in the country of their birth? This is not suggesting that all field engineers are of EU dissent, but due to education trends over the last couple of decades there are less UK citizens suited to these professions than in previous generations.

The millennials were a generation ushered towards university. The percentage of UK citizens who are now in their 20s, 30s and early 40s have a higher proportion of degrees than previous generations. It is becoming less attractive to go to university nowadays, such is the horrendous price of tuition fees, but that does not fix the problem. Attracting workers from the EU was one way to fill the gaps in these fields of expertise.

As Whelan pointed out, Poland has an on-going broadband initiative running nationwide, while so do Hungary and Germany. Soon enough, the Czech Republic will be kicking off their own projects and so will numerous other EU nations. The UK is not the only place in Europe running large scale broadband schemes, but with Brexit on the horizon it is becoming increasingly unattractive as a place of work for EU citizens. Just as the UK telco industry needs to hire more field engineers, the availability of candidates might just start drying up.

Addressing BoJo’s preposterous claims 100% FTTH could be delivered by 2025, Robert Kenny, co-founder of Communications Chambers, suggested Brexit would be his downfall. Fortunately, the point Kenny is making also supports the argument being made here.

“Brexit has resulted in a large number of continental European engineers and construction workers returning home from the UK, meaning that telcos are having a nightmare recruiting the staff necessary even for the current pace of deployment,” Kenny wrote on LinkedIn. “Quite how they would radically accelerate is not clear.”

Some might suggest technology can take over and plug the gaps. Yes, the likes of Openreach and Virgin Media are getting better and faster at rolling out fibre networks. However, Whelan believes the technological gains will only help these companies maintain the current rate, to increase the pace of deployment there is only one solution; hire more people.

The UK is making progress. After years of ignoring the benefits of a fibre diet, the penny seems to have dropped. However, as with everything in life, some people will never be happy. It doesn’t matter is the UK is adding 3-4 million fibre premises to the network a year, more is always better. But more might not be possible before too long.

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