FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and his policy adviser, Evan Schwartztrauber, paid a visit to Raycap Stealth on April 18. The company specializes in concealing antennas used for wireless communications, whether by screening, hiding or camouflaging the installations.
“We try to meet with the small manufacturers that produce small cells and other key pieces of infrastructure for 5G wireless communications builds and hear directly from them,” Carr said. “The Raycap Stealth facility was on our radar. What interested me is that less than a year ago; they built a new, 100,000-square-foot manufacturing plant specifically because of the increase they are seeing in demand for small cell builds. This plant was a warehouse for lumber and coffee less than a year ago.”
About a year and a half ago, Carr said, the FCC started taking steps to help accelerate small cell builds by updating and modernizing federal and state infrastructure rules. He said it is gratifying to see a significant uptick in small cell builds. In his view, relatively small manufacturing plants such as Raycap Stealth’s are benefiting from the trend.
“They’re telling us they are seeing a five to 10 times increase in demand, and that is part of why they built the new small cell factory,” Carr said. “They’re growing their workforce by about 10 percent each month to meet demand.”
Carr said the Raycap Stealth experience is consistent with what he has heard in visits with other manufacturers about the increase in 5G infrastructure and small cell builds. Earlier in the same trip, he visited Elkmont, Alabama.
“There was a small manufacturing facility that makes the harnesses that a lot of the tower climbers use for the small cell work,” Carr said. “They were telling us that in the last year and a half, production for them is up two times.”
The Small Cell Opportunity
What Carr said he has heard in such visits lines up with what he is seeing in the nationwide data that indicates small cell builds are an economic opportunity for small towns like Elkmont and at the Raycap Stealth home base in North Charleston, South Carolina.
“The growth at Raycap Stealth was surprising,” Carr said. “I think there are about 80 workers right now, and they are hiring five to 10 workers each month. Seeing those statistics is helpful. It’s surprising.”
Trey Nemeth, the company’s senior vice president of operations and engineering, said Raycap Stealth has about 200,000 square feet in Charleston, comprised of two main facilities, one for its composite manufacturing division and one for its steel and small cell pole manufacturing division.
Speaking of Carr and Schwartztrauber, Nemeth said they were interested in Raycap Stealth’s opinion of the directives the FCC issued last year regarding small cell siting, the shot clock, aesthetics and costs, and what influence they had on the company’s business.
“I think that the FCC has done a great job of leading the way and knocking down some barriers in order to facilitate small cell build out and specifically the 5G build out,” Nemeth said. “It is beginning to materialize in more work for all of the people who are in the industry.”
At Raycap Stealth, Nemeth said, that has meant hiring engineers and project managers and even more manufacturing employees who perform welding, crafting and fabrication for products used in the small cell build out.
“We have undergone substantial growth,” Nemeth said. “Raycap acquired Stealth Concealment Solutions about a year ago, and since then we have increased the size of our facility and brought on a large number of staff to support the current demand.”
Along with the growth in the manufacturing of small cell products, the demand for traditional concealment shows no sign of slowing, according to the company’s general manager, Sean McLernon. He said small cells will require other elements of concealment to appease local jurisdictions and stakeholders.
“This is why we have recently announced our patent-pending InvisiWave solutions for concealing 5G millimeter-wave radio applications to help this technology blend into its environment with little impact on the propagation of the millimeter-wave beam,” McLernon said. “There now is a ton of synergy with our new facility in Charleston and Raycap’s West Coast factory to leverage concealment production, particularly the small cell poles, to the fullest extent possible for the benefit of our customers.”
Concealment Improves Aesthetics
Nemeth said that all Tier 1 wireless carriers in North America have approved Raycap Stealth to build concealment products that hide 5G millimeter-wave radios. With the concealment, he said, the company can create products that are more aesthetically pleasing and more speedily approved by the cities and municipalities.
“It helps to speed the approval process, which is important to the wireless operators,” Nemeth said. “Also, these products tend to be more simplistic and future-proof. If we are building a radome that goes around 5G radios, as long as we add some space, it is possible to swap out those radios relatively easy in the future as new radios come along.”
Nemeth said that the visit by Carr and Schwartztrauber was the first time in his 23 years in the business federal officials took the time to come his place of work.
“I was very impressed by that. It is not going unnoticed by me and others in the industry how much of an interest the FCC is taking in our specific industry,” Nemeth said. “This is a very positive thing, and I look forward to growth and upward mobility as we move forward with the new regulations.”
Carr said the visit to Raycap Stealth reinforced his view that whether it stems from industry trends in general or reforms the FCC adopted, a big boost in small cell builds is taking place. He said that has led to a problem in raising a workforce sufficiently skilled to install the many new antennas and concealed sites.
Tower Climbers Needed
“If you consider tower hands alone, we probably need 20,000 more tower climbers to hang all the antennas that are being produced at these facilities, Carr said. “If you go beyond tower hands to take into account the construction jobs generally needed for 5G wireless communications, whether it’s fiber or otherwise, it’s probably a considerable multiple of that 20,000 number.”
Carr applauded the efforts of Aiken Technical College, about a two-hour drive from the Raycap Stealth plant, where he and his policy adviser also paid a visit. He reported Aiken has a 12-week program that can take someone with no skills and give them enough baseline tower climbing technical skills to get a job as a tower hand. This is a solidly middle-class, good-paying job, he said.
In concluding his comments about his visit to Raycap Stealth, Carr said: “A unique aspect of the plant is that it is a soup-to-nuts kind of place. They are building everything from stealthing concealment facilities to making towers look like chimneys. They have light poles that are holding antennas inside them. They do everything from the welding and the pressing of the steel to some of the artwork that goes around stealthing the cell sites. It is interesting to see the pace of growth and manufacturing processes in this particular plant.”