It is as though we are entering a three-dimensional holiday card as we look out the front windshield of a bright-red PistenBully snowcat tracked vehicle stuttering up the mountain through evergreen trees adorned with thick dollops of snow toward a tower farm shrouded in a fog of snowflakes.
There is no emergency today. Just a Legacy Telecommunications employee training to be a new snowcat pilot. CEO Jim Tracy’s tone is light, but his message of safety-first is serious as he puts Jay Peterson through his paces. Teaching him the finer points of controlling the snowy leviathan with a tiny joystick.
But if there were an emergency, this is exactly where you would find them.
The prime power for these remote tower sites in the Cascade Mountain Range comes from generators. If a generator goes out, the clock begins to tick – crews have one battery-life to get to that site for repairs.
“When you have an essential link to a microwave system or even a fiber network goes out, you have a very limited window of opportunity before people start losing data, losing money or lifesaving 911 service,” Tracy said. “Our job is to get to that tower under any type of weather conditions. Snow, rain, slush — as long as it is still safe.”
In order to get there safely, Legacy commands a fleet of vehicles that are up for the job: three PistenBully snowcats and five Polaris utility terrain vehicles (UTV) on quad tracks. The snowcats work best in the heaviest snow, and the UTVs work also well into the spring. Legacy always keeps a UTV to back up the snowcat, or vice versa, in case weather conditions change.
The cost of being prepared is not small, however. A snowcat alone will cost around $250,000, including equipment and a trained operator. Inside the cab, it is safety first with multiple communications options, including a GPS unit, a 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (known as an EPIRB), a satellite phone and a land mobile radio, not to mention a cell phone. But even with these high upfront costs straining return on investment, Tracy views mountain tower services as good for business.
Legacy has service level agreements with customers that require it to be on a tower site that may be on a mountainside, inside a six-hour window. Its fleet of vehicles is positioned in different locations across the Northwest, in order to reach the maximum number of mountaintop tower sites. Though based in Seattle, Legacy reaches mountaintop tower sites to the east as far as South Dakota and to the south as far as Wyoming, southern Oregon and Nevada.
The goal, according to Tracy, is to differentiate Legacy from its competitors in the industry by serving customers’ needs when and where they need to be served.
“Our focus is to create value by never allowing our customers’ towers to go down,” Tracy said. “That allows us to keep our customers happy. We are trying to make sure that they can call us anytime for anything.”
A Path to Diversification
The ability to get technicians to the top of a tower at the top of a mountain in rain, sleet or snow has diversified Legacy’s clients. When you roll up to a mountaintop tower farm, you may see tower owned by FAA for air-to-ground communications. The Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service administers sites and access rather than owning towers. So Legacy has access through and on government property to service sites under their leases. That opens up a number of new customer possibilities. Legacy’s office in Three Forks, Montana, has to access Yellowstone National Park in the winter to reach tower sites when you are more likely to find a bison, elk or moose than a clear road.
“Our ability to reach mountaintops has opened up other avenues for us,” Tracy said. “Legacy has been successful in providing drone service to tower sites in the mountains for the oil and gas community and others in the telecom world, not only for inspections but also for predicting upgrades or to determine whether a tower is safe to climb.”
Legacy Telecommunications, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this summer, has evolved its fleet over years. If you go back to the year 2000, the fleet included a half-dozen four-wheel-drive, three-quarter-ton Chevy pickups. Ten years later, you would have found a single PistenBully, a pair of UTV quads on wheels and a few pickup trucks fitted with large tool boxes. Today, you will find everything from tractors to excavators, pickup trucks, utility-type service bodies, PistenBullys, excavators, quads on tracks and portable generators.
“Our fleet has changed remarkably over the years, but it is all customer-driven,” Tracy said. “Between the Rockies and the Cascades, we get snow by the yard, not the inch, and our customer may need us when the weather is tough. If you can be their hero during their bad times, they should feel safe with you when the jobs are easier, as well.”
Talk of labor shortages has almost hit the same volume as reports about 5G rollout plans. The current pools engineering and technician labor, it seems, is already being outstripped by the demands to densify the wireless and fiber network. Roaming Networks, a Serbian ICT system integrator that provides consulting, design, implementation, integration and maintenance services in the fields of radio and microwave access networks, passive optical networks, transport and access systems, IT infrastructure and data centers, security solutions and IP networks and infrastructure, has set up shop in the United States and it aims to help.
Five years ago, when new management took over Roaming Networks in Belgrade, Serbia, the decision was made to expand the business into new markets, as well as to broaden the portfolio of services. Since then, it has expanded into Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria and Germany. And most recently Roaming Network expanded into the United States with a partnership and then purchase of Orchard Electric in Chicago. Today, it has more than 500 employees in six countries.
Until April, the company worked under the name Orchard Electric, but now it is operating under the name Roaming Networks. It has three crews working on AT&T/FirstNet sites in Indiana partnering with a general contractor that is tied to a turf vendor.
Fred Teichman, who has worked for Fullerton Engineering, LEMCON USA and American Tower, joined Roaming Networks nine months ago to put crews together and assist them in understanding the telecom services space in the United States. And through the visa process, they began to bring their workforce over to America.
“We are not stealing workforce from our competitors. We are bringing over a trained workforce from Serbia,” Teichman said. In Serbia, Roaming Networks has developed a workforce through relationships with technical high schools and universities and developed their own program called “Engineer of the Future.”
The initial tower technicians were American and included employees from Orchard Electric. “We do need a U.S. workforce to mentor the Serbians on safety requirements, the scope of work, and close out procedures,” Teichman said. For training in the United States, Roaming Networks uses eSystem Training Solutions, a local CITCA and the general contractor.
It is a long and costly process to bring foreign specialized workers to America. Several different visa types are available and they all are issued for one to three years. If an employee obtains green card they can stay up to 10 years. No matter what engineering skills the Serbs have, they are also certified tower climbers.
“The shortage in tower technicians provides fuel for us to convince the government officials in charge of the visa process that the need for these workers is there,” Teichman. “Because there is so much demand right now, it supports the fact that we need a workforce to come over, which improves the visa process.”
Roaming Networks now provides site acquisition, construction, integration and engineering, with global agreements with Ericsson and Nokia. And tower building has been added to the young company’s objectives. Bidding on a raw-land build is occurring right now.
“We are also working with six different engineering companies,” Teichman said. “We use a hybrid approach, providing a certified climber and a drone operator. Drones are phenomenal tool to be able to catch the visual aspects, and we never fear they will replace climbers.”
A multicultural Experience
Teichman now works with a number of foreign nationals with names like: Dagan Dordev from Belgrade; Vladan Kedic from Obrenovac; Milos Maksimovice from Prizren. It has exposed him to a new, different culture.
“The best part has been meeting the people. It has been exciting and overwhelming at times,” Teichman said. “I am blessed to work with people who are humble and hardworking and just want to get things done.”
Even though there is some language barrier, Teichman said he feels comfortable and has blended well with them. Google Translate is now his favorite app on his smart phone. “In a very short period of time I have developed a high level of trust in them,” he said. “It has been lot of fun getting to know each other. There is a learning curve to understand the culture differences.”
May 7, 2015 — How efficient are your crews at documenting and closing out work done on a tower site? Are mistakes being made in photographing the work, which require do-over climbs? If so, Dale McConnell, business development director for BlueSky101, might be your guy.
McConnell is not a tower guy. But it only took one consulting job with a tower services company for him to realize that closeouts could be done more efficiently.
“Whenever they had to prove the tower work was done, it was pandemonium,” McConnell said. “Photos were not labeled and had to be renamed. Many were lost and had to be reshot. Photos of a job sometimes did not have the time and date stamp, and they had to be reshot.”
The byproduct of these problems is greater risk as workers fumble with paperwork while at the top of the tower or are forced to make dangerous, time-consuming re-climbs. The result is wasted time and greater expense. Not to mention that if a tower services company cannot prove the work was completed to the carrier’s satisfaction, it probably won’t get paid.
The answer to this problem, a product called CloseOut Pro assists workers in the field in verifying that a cell tower job has been has been completed properly. Here’s how it works. The software-driven system, which works on a Windows-based phone, is provided by BlueSky101 to the tower services company.
Each carrier provides its own requirements in the form of an Excel spreadsheet of what must be done on a jobsite, which is uploaded to the tower services company’s cloud area. Every company has its own private cloud site.
The spreadsheet is imported into BlueSky101 system, where it is changed into a check list of items and sub-items of what should be photographed and it is pushed out to the mobile devices. After the checklist enters the handset, the user can create jobs, upload photos and create closeout documents. The software tags each picture with the area of the tower, when it was taken and the geolocation.
The workers are more likely to get the closeout photos completed correctly because the software on the phone walks them through the checklist step-by-step, plus the photos can be reviewed by management in the back office in real time.
“It is a good communication tool between the tower climber in the field and personnel in the office,” McConnell said. “The photos can be reviewed by management while the worker still on the tower, so reshooting is quick and safe.”