Federal Funding Provides More Work: 2023 fiber optic update

By Jim Hayes | Jan 16, 2023
shutterstock / Talaj
Every year before I write this column, I read what I wrote the year before.




Every year before I write this column, I read what I wrote the year before. Last year I wrote, “If 2020 was the year we learned that the internet and broadband connectivity were necessities, not luxuries, 2021 was the year that we learned that we’re not prepared to make it universally available. The problems are twofold, a genuine commitment to provide broadband and a workforce to build it.”

Well, 2022 reversed the entire first statement and half of the second. The Biden administration gave us the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was a commitment to provide broadband—and other infrastructure projects—and $1 trillion to fund it.

What’s in the IIJA?

The IIJA does allocate a trillion dollars to infrastructure projects that desperately need it. There is $65 billion for broadband, including $43.5 billion for construction of networks for underserved and unserved areas.

But it also includes $108 billion for energy, including updating the power grid and building renewable energy projects that should be of particular interest to electrical contractors. Having worked with the Electric Power Research Institute, I know how much fiber optic work needs to be done to modernize the electrical grid. Solar and wind projects built with IIJA funding also require fiber for management, control and integrating the power generated into the grid.

Most of the rest of the projects are transportation-related: roads and bridges, railroads, public transit, seaports, airports and highway safety are allocated more than $250 billion. While much of that money will be spent on updating the infrastructure, the modernization programs will require plenty of fiber optics for communications, creating intelligent highway systems and even sensors to measure traffic and monitor bridge and roadway safety.

Even the $55 billion allocated for water and wastewater projects require fiber. At a smart city meeting several years ago, the water department manager of a large city discussed how much fiber needed to manage water delivery and wastewater control.

Potential problems

The IIJA is just the commitment; making it happen is completely different. The first problem will be getting the money to the right projects.

Most of the capital is being funneled to the states, where local agencies will review projects and grant funding. Most states are having to create a new agency covering broadband and finding staffers who understand fiber broadband and are capable of reviewing projects intelligently. Plus, they must deal with the army of lobbyists to help them spend the money.

The second problem is that this tsunami of funding will create a flood of projects in an already overloaded market. Current projects for 5G cellular, fiber to the home and data centers have filled the order books. We’re hearing complaints that delivery times on orders for large amounts of fiber optic cable are being quoted at up to one year.

Recruiting and training

The workforce problem is also ongoing. Finding and recruiting candidates for fiber optic technician jobs is not easy. Even worse, right now—before the IIJA money gets allocated— the Fiber Optic Association (FOA) has been getting calls about finding contractors to bid on jobs in broadband, 5G, data centers and transportation. One state contacted the FOA because they needed to find more contractors to bid on a $3 billion fiber middle-mile project.

As I read the “Profile of the Electrical Contractor” in the July and August 2022 issues, all I could think was, “Why aren’t all those contractors bidding on fiber optic jobs?” If you are one of those not currently doing fiber, there is no better time than now to get involved. Use your local contacts to recruit more young people.

At the FOA, we are adding new schools every month, almost all in cooperation with states looking to expand their workforce. We’ve set up many state technical colleges to teach fiber optics in preparation for the IIJA projects. We’re working with contractors to set up on-the-job training using resources such as FOA’s Fiber U online learning website.

I hate to make forecasts, especially with everyone talking about a recession. But much of this money is going to be spent over the next few years, and it looks recession-proof. Fiber optic contractors and technicians are going to be very busy.

Header image source: Shutterstock / Talaj

About The Author

HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of the Fiber Optic Association. Find him at





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