IBEW utility lineworkers in Alabama will soon be running fiber-optic cabling for broadband internet, thanks to a recent agreement with Alabama Power. The pact stands to have far-reaching job-growth and training implications for IBEW utility workers across the U.S.
“This is the result of the IBEW lobbying Congress to invest in expanding fiber optic networks and to better allow utilities to build out the middle mile of those networks,” said Utility Department Director Donnie Colston.
The agreement covers the installation, handling and attaching of fiber-optic cable, plus the intermediate splicing and testing of new-construction fiber.
“Traditionally, we’ve just been utility linemen, dealing with nothing but electrical wires,” said U-19 Business Manager Casey Shelton. “We’ve never really stepped into communications service. But COVID opened our eyes to the ways that technology has changed, and we started giving thought to broadband work.”
Electrical utilities are increasingly interested in adding broadband expansion, thanks in part to the billions of dollars in subsidies being made available in recent years under such government funding programs as the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“The IBEW lobbied hard to include money in these laws to build out broadband networks,” said Colston. He and Austin Keyser, assistant to the international president for government affairs, have also been working with the White House and the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, on developing a national broadband strategy.
“Broadband and high-speed internet service is on the way to every part of the U.S., especially in rural and traditionally underserved communities,” Keyser said. “We’re talking with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and policymakers in the Biden administration every day to make sure IBEW members are the ones who will get that work — and, just as importantly, keep it.”
Colston said that ongoing efforts to maintain good working relations on the part of labor and management alike has helped move Alabama Power to the head of the pack in this arena. “There are other utility companies that are wanting to build out the middle mile and take advantage of using IBEW workers to do it,” he said, “but they are not as far along as Alabama Power.”
Just as significant is the fact that Alabama Power also negotiated adding fiber-optic training to its apprenticeship program with the National Utility Industry Training Fund, Colston said, which will benefit all the utilities and locals that use the NUITF program at IBEW training centers across the U.S. NUITF is a joint project of the IBEW and major U.S. utility companies to boost recruitment and training.
“Alabama Power reached out to NUITF and said: ‘We’ve already put the criteria together. We want everyone to come along with us on this and add it to their apprenticeship programs. We want all of NUITF to benefit from this,’” Colston said.
The agreement didn’t happen overnight. “We brought it to the company, and then there was 2½ years of discussion,” he said, which helped Alabama Power recognize the many benefits of having the IBEW members they already trust take on this work. His system council is made up of nine locals representing Alabama Power workers: Mobile Local 345, Gadsden Local 391, Dothan Local 796, Montgomery Local 801, Jasper Local 833, Birmingham Local 841, Tallassee Local 904, Demopolis Local 1053 and Wilsonville Local 2077.
“Now, utilities are trying to figure out the advantages of applying for IIJA funding, and the NUITF program stands to benefit as well,” said Mark Baker, an international representative with the Utility Department and the executive director of NUITF. “This is a phenomenal reflection of why politics matters.”
“Our industry is updating how to communicate with substations, where we’re already pulling in fiber-optic cable, while also addressing cyber security,” Colston said. “What utilities want to do is run the actual fiber-optic cable itself, and then let communities tap into that and use it. What we want is for the IBEW to build it out together with them.”
The Alabama Power agreement is helping make that happen. “It’s all in training now, learning how to splice and test 288-strand fiber-optic broadband cable,” Shelton said.
Connecting these lines to homes and businesses — the “last mile” of fiber-optic networks — will continue to be handled by telecom workers.
“These are exciting times,” Shelton said. “There’s so much potential for growth, in installation and maintenance alike. We’re looking forward to continuing to make sure that as many of these jobs as possible go to IBEW members.”
The Alabama Power agreement specifically calls for a “roving connectivity crew” to handle all aspects of fiber-optic cable installation throughout northern Alabama, including make-ready work such as pole setting, moving distribution equipment on the poles to make communication space available for cable, pulling in and attaching cabling, and intermediate cable splicing. Nine new IBEW Alabama Power jobs are being created with these crews, Shelton said, with another crew set to start work in 2024.
“The main thing is that Alabama Power is using its existing workforce to build out fiber,” Colston said. “It’s an investor-owned utility that said, ‘We want to take advantage of the IIJA funds, we want the IBEW to partner with us, and we’re going to use our own union linemen.’”
The agreement not only means more IBEW jobs, it means access to life-changing broadband for rural Alabamans.
“Considering how much kids nowadays are relying on remote learning, this is extremely important,” Shelton said. “Long term, we might see the day that it’s almost more important to restore broadband first, then power.”
He is grateful during this exciting time. “We’ve got to constantly be digging in to do more work, and this could mean years upon years of work, installing and maintaining fiber lines.”
“It’s a real steppingstone for us,” he said. “It’s a huge win for the IBEW and the customer.”