Telecommunication line installers install and repair a variety of communication cables both inside and between buildings. They are responsible for terminating complex cable runs at customer demarcation points and splicing together cables to distribute services through buildings or neighborhoods.
Some cable installers specialize in running cables inside buildings themselves, designing the most protected and shortest routes through the building structure to reach service points inside. Others work mostly outside, either stringing cable between telephone poles or running it through conduits below ground level.
The very fact that you are reading this sentence right now is something you can thank a telecommunications line installer for.
Line installers are the unsung heroes of the Internet revolution. Few people consider the millions and millions of miles of copper and fiber optic cable that web out around the world connecting us all to one another and to the engines of commerce– Amazon, Apple, and Google.
Without those cables – whether the fat bundles of fibers with protective sheathing inches-thick that pass below the oceans, or the thin four-pair Cat 5 that leads to a network jack in your home or office – there would be no Internet.
Telecom Installation Offers Varied Work in Various Places
Telecom installers can be found everywhere, running the last mile of cable from a central office along telephone poles straight to your house, or on a lonely seashore, sprayed with surf as they help land a massive trans-oceanic communication cable. The job can provide an enormous variety of opportunities and experiences.
There are three primary types of telecommunications cables:
- Transmission lines, like copper cable that carries signals using on/off electrical currents on wire pairs
- Waveguides, which also use metallic cable, but use it to carry electromagnetic wave signals
- Optical fibers, which use lasers to signal through finely-spun reflective tubing
Fiber optic – Each type of cable requires particular types of tools and special considerations for installation. Optical fibers, for instance, are considered hard to splice together and the tooling and training to do so is extremely specialized—fusion splicers create an electric arc that literally melts the glass strands together. Doing so without blocking the light transmission is an art that requires both training and practice.
Metal cables – Metal cables are much easier to splice and can be soldered or crimped, but each connection reduces the conductivity of the signal and so each has to be planned carefully.
Waveguide cables – Waveguide cables are susceptible to electrical interference from nearby emissions sources, like high-voltage power lines, so they have to either be run to avoid those sources or shielded with an outer layer of woven metallic fiber, encasing them in a tubular Faraday cage.
Some cable is simply strung directly overhead from telephone poles, to be connected by branch lines to the customer premises. Telecom installers find themselves working in bucket trucks or high up on ladders to string these cables. They operate in close proximity to power lines and receive some of the same training as electrical linemen for safety.
Increasingly, telecom cable is being run underground through plastic conduit. Using conventional earthmoving and digging equipment, a trench is excavated down to a layer below freezing level and conduit of varying sizes is laid in and covered up again. Special machinery is sometimes used to lay the conduit off a big, circular spool, saving time because separate lengths do not have to be connected. Continuous conduit is also less likely to leak, since there are fewer joints.
Cable run through conduits is either pulled or blown. Some conduit comes with or has previously been run through with messenger lines, which are lightweight synthetic cords. A cable end can be carefully attached to the cord and the other end of the line pulled to draw the cable through the conduit. Sometimes gel or other lubricant agents are used to facilitate the pull. This method is most common when capacity is being added to older conduit lines.
With new conduit, installers commonly use a technique called cable jetting, or “blowing.” In order to reduce the amount of friction on the cable and the force required by pulling, installers instead use compressed air to push the cable end toward the destination, while feeding it in at the source end. Installation is faster and less likely to damage the cable with this technique.
Telecom installers working with transoceanic communication cables have even more unusual tools: huge ships with spools of the heavily armored cable on them, and remotely operated underseas vehicles which trench and bury the cable in shallow water. The line is simply dropped on the ocean floor in deeper areas, trusting to the polyethylene cover, mylar insulation, and reinforced steel cabling to protect the delicate copper and glass inside.
Long-distance telecommunications lines, both above and below water, have to be laid with power to operate signal amplifiers or switching equipment placed along the line. The devices are typically low-voltage, running at 110 VAC or below, but telecommunication’s line specialists have to be extraordinarily careful to ensure that stray voltage does not ground directly into signaling lines—the equipment would quickly be destroyed if that were to happen.
Becoming a Telecommunication Line Installer
Most telecom line installers work for contractors or large telecommunications companies. Almost all of them learn on the job, through training programs that can last one to two years. Some organizations use an apprenticeship system, where new hires work under the direct supervision of a more experience installer while they are learning the ropes.
Apprentices make anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of a journeyman installer, and can expect to take about two years to advance. Unlike some other electrical trades, there is no independent apprenticeship council to apply to since the companies doing the hiring manage the apprenticeship programs internally.
Jobs for telecom installers can be found anywhere in the country. Even geographically remote regions have many communications lines running through them. Urban areas are more likely to have a variety of positions, both those working primarily inside and outside.
College degrees are usually not required to become a telecommunication line installer, but some community colleges offer two-year associate’s degrees in telecommunications work. This type of education lays the groundwork for on-the-job training, whether informal or through an apprenticeship program.
More common are various telecom certifications. The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers offers a variety of specialized cabling certifications. The Fiber Optic Association, another industry trade group, offers a specific certification for fiber optic cabling technicians.
Telecommunication Line Installer Salaries and Job Prospects
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for telecom line installers in 2015 was $52,920.
Pay varies substantially by both geography and specialty. Highly specialized telecom technicians who work with fiber optics connections will make considerably more than installers who lay cable and do ditch work.
The following are some examples of starting hourly pay rates for telecommunications line installers as taken from job listings found in August 2016 (These job listings are shown as examples only and do not represent job offers or a guaranteed rate of pay.):
- Telecommunication installer in Dubuque – $12/hour
- Low-voltage cable installation technician in Nashville – $21
- Telecom installer with a wireless integration company in Washington, D.C. – $23/hour