Tower Companies Adapt to Coronavirus Pandemic

Originally Published by AGL Media Group
Author: J. Sharpe Smith

Seven days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic because of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and President Donald Trump announced air travel restrictions into the United States, tower company executives are grounded and their staffs are working from home. But that doesn’t mean the wireless infrastructure industry is standing still.

Early last week, Boston-based InSite Wireless Group activated its disaster preparedness program. The first component is to ensure that employees and families are safe, with specific policies restricting all but essential travel.

A week and a half ago, InSite designated backup resources to maintain assets, from DAS venues to tower sites, to eliminate staff travel. InSite has multiple contractors that are in close proximity to each of its nationwide portfolio of 2,500 assets that can be called on to assist with maintenance and deployment.

“I stopped traveling two weeks ago,” said Tony Sabatino, president and chief strategy officer at InSite. “As soon as the president locked down global travel, we locked down our team members’ travel. If travel is needed for a construction inspection, for example, we hire third parties.”

InSite bases some of its policies on the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which are reviewed during daily phone calls of the upper management. “We have daily C-level calls to discuss how our policies are working,” Sabatino said. “We have a CDC report, a legal report, a customer needs report and a full NOC [network operations center] review.

Two additional calls are scheduled daily to make sure any problems identified during the C-suite meeting have been resolved. Problems that can’t be resolved are escalated to David Weisman, InSite CEO.

“We are getting a lot accomplished,” Sabatino said. “The communication and interaction have really increased. Because I am not traveling, I have found that I don’t miss as many phone calls. We are preparing along the way and creating contingency plans based on the information that we are receiving from all the industry experts.  We have systematically put the processes in place. We are thinking about what we will need to do — if we go to quarantine, if we go to mandatory lockdowns or if we go to curfews — to make sure our teams will still be able to go back to fix things that are broken.”

Even as caution is being taken to help crews avoid the coronavirus, tower development has not slowed down and InSite has multiple crews in the field building towers in a number of states across the country including Montana, New York, the Carolinas and Virginia. No supply chain delays have been reported yet.

APC Towers Adjusting to Working Remotely

Everybody is working remotely at APC Towers in Raleigh, North Carolina, pushing projects forward with the carriers whose employees are also working remotely. And, yes, there are challenges.

“We are reacting to the changes and working hard through project management,” said Danny Agresta, APC CEO. “Internet speeds are not always fast enough. Not all carrier employees have access to the needed data.”

As does InSite, APC emphasizes communication to help it get through the crisis. “To continue to get things done, we need to follow up with the customer, the contractor, the general contractor and the landlord, not on a weekly basis, but more on a daily basis to check on the progress of the crews, because things are changing so quickly,” Agresta said. “We are pivoting and trying to be as efficient as possible.”

Normally, businesses look at the quarter or the year ahead, but the coronavirus crisis has changed that mindset. “We have shortened our focus to helping our customers every day with whatever needs to be done,” Agresta said. “We don’t know what kind of personal challenges our customers are going through. We know everyone is hurting in different ways.”

On the positive side, many in the tower industry have benefited from the adoption digital signatures, where all documents and contracts can be executed without additional personnel to handle the paper and send through the U.S. mail.

Tarpon Towers on the Move

Even as it has asked employees to work from home, Tarpon Towers has an added complication. It is moving its offices to Lakeland Ranch, Florida tomorrow.

“We really don’t have many options. Our lease is up. We are using movers and very few of our employees are directly involved,” said CEO Ron Bizick.

“There is so much uncertainty, not only with the virus, but for people who are not used to working remotely and at the same time are scrambling to take care of children who are out of school or worse yet caring for anyone that may be ill now or in the future, god forbid,” he added.

Tarpon, which has slightly more than 150 tower builds in its backlog, is moving toward 50 builds in the first half of 2020 and barring any changes another 25 in the second half of the year.

While there are currently no supply chain effects concerning tower steel as Tarpon has ordered all of its first half towers and most are in fabrication, it remains to be seen if the towers needed for the second half will be affected, according to Bizick.

Bizick expects a trickledown effect of people staying home concerned about the virus. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the industry build and colocation engine won’t be affected,” he said. “It will touch all aspects of the tower building process, from site acquisition, zoning hearings, soil testing and engineering to the tower crews that stack the steel.

“What matters here is the health and safety of people. This virus will pass and it has proven without a doubt how vitally important telecommunication infrastructure is to connect the people of the world.  When it passes, I think we shall all be back at task in earnest, helping to do our part ensure critical connectivity for all,” he added.

CTI Towers Taking it All in Stride

Friday, March 13, was the last day employees were in the office at CTI Towers, Cary, North Carolina. With health officials warning against meeting in close quarters, CTI Towers canceled a companywide training event to be held this week and then closed its corporate offices. Employees are all working from home now. Despite all the uncertainty, CTI CEO Peduto was upbeat.

“Everyone has been taking it in great spirit,” Peduto said. “In terms of communicating, I had a videoconference with my management team on Monday and more videoconferences are set for tomorrow. As a CEO of a company, I have to take care of the health of my employees. If you take care of the employees, the business will get taken care of as well. I don’t worry too much about it.

“As soon as we get the all-clear, we will be back on the planes and on the road,” Peduto added. “We will thank the people for their understanding through this crisis and move the business forward.”

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