Those Cell Towers Don’t Build Themselves
Perhaps the biggest question facing the telecommunications industry is which company will be first to roll out the speedier 5G network to customers. Whether a company succeeds in that depends upon the work done by people like Bill Hilyer.
As an area manager of network engineering for AT&T, Mr. Hilyer helps decide where to build the cell towers that will connect communities to 5G, among other things. Although he now works with some of the most advanced wireless technology, Mr. Hilyer has been in telecommunications long enough to know the industry likely isn’t done with its evolution.
“Telecom has changed a lot from the days of walking in the kitchen and picking up the handset and pushing the numbers to call somebody,” he says.
Mr. Hilyer’s career path has closely tracked many industry-rattling developments. His first job out of college was working as an engineer with traditional landline services. He moved to working with digital subscriber line, or DSL, as data services grew. And he jumped to
’s wireless division shortly after the iPhone launched in 2007 and changed the way people used cellphones.
Here, edited excerpts from a conversation with The Wall Street Journal about how he got his job.
What does a telecommunications network engineering area manager’s job entail?
I am responsible for supervising a group of project managers who oversee the network build in the wireless space for five states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Where: Hoover, Ala.
Title: Area manager, network engineering at AT&T
Time in job: Joined BellSouth in 2000; company later acquired by AT&T
Education: Bachelors in civil engineering from the University of Alabama at Birmingham
Key skills: communicating with customers, juggling competing priorities, staying optimistic
In a given day, I could be looking at what we call a search ring, which is a focus area for a brand new cell site, trying to pick out a good location. I could leave that and go be on a call with our attorneys negotiating leases for a new site build or modification to an existing tower. And then I could leave that and talk to some of my structural project managers about a failure at a tower and how we can reduce our capital exposure on fixing it. I could then finish the day talking to a landlord about some kind of conflict over something on a rooftop. It varies greatly over the day.
What makes a good site for a cell tower?
It’s a real-estate question: Location, location, location. Typically you’re looking at areas that are highly populated and with elevated terrain. Everybody wants to be in the nice part of town sitting on the hill, right? Well, that’s where we want our cell tower to be too. You’re looking for a high spot in the terrain, but not so high that the signal overshoots your target area. You don’t want a backdrop with mountains, because it blocks the signal. And you don’t want poor soil or swampy areas. That doesn’t necessarily rule out a tower, but the foundation design for those can get a little outrageous. I’ve had some bids come back where just the foundation itself is over $1 million to build.
Do you need particular education or training for this role?
You need either a mechanical engineering or civil engineering degree, because you’re dealing with a lot of site plans, grading and drainage. You’re also dealing with the tower, which is a lot of structural engineering.
What kind of traits do you need to succeed in your job?
Once we decide where we need a new tower location, you turn into a door-to-door salesman. You’ve got to be able to talk to customers, put it in terms that they understand. You’ve got to be very optimistic. You also have to be able to juggle several competing priorities at once. The wireless world changes quite frequently and if you don’t provide what the customer wants, they have options. You can’t get dug in on what you’re going to work on a given day because that may change by 8:30 that morning.
How did you know the job was right for you?
Believe it or not, from an early age I did want to be an engineer. I’m not going to say that I knew I wanted to work for the phone company, but my dad and several relatives worked there. Our Thanksgiving conversations with extended family had as much detail about South Central Bell as they did about how everyone’s kids were doing. Growing up, I knew my dad’s character and I knew the culture. As I got older I felt like that was a culture that I would be very comfortable with. When I graduated college in engineering and Ma Bell gave the call, it was kind of a no-brainer to take the job.
Later, when I moved from wireline operations to the wireless space, I didn’t know it was right at first. There’s been so much consolidation it’s almost like the Brady Bunch. There was a cultural difference when I first came over, but I stuck with it. It’s one of the best career moves I’d ever made, without a doubt.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
The nerd comes out in me a lot when I get to look at a problem with some sort of structural aspect. I really like looking at the numbers. I also loved getting to talk to customers. You get to hear a lot of different stories about something as unique as how they got that property and you get to hear stories about who talked them into letting us put a cell tower on that property.
What’s your biggest challenge in this job?
The biggest challenge we have is having several priorities in our hands at one time and trying to be the first one to market for the consumer. Right now we want to be the first to 5G, and there are a lot of questions of what that looks like. On top of that we’re also the provider for FirstNet, which is a wireless network for first responders.
Putting towers into a neighborhood is a tough negotiation. Most people are not going to want them in their backyards. It’s mainly aesthetics. Believe it or not, one of the biggest arguments is “I don’t want to look at that blinking light all night.” We have some alternatives, like towers designed to look like trees. In more urban areas, we can hide equipment in existing structures. We have a lot of antennas hidden in church steeples.
What’s the coolest site build you’ve been involved in?
Some of the coolest work we did was on the Gulf Coast in Destin, Fla., on rooftops. We were rushing to get the work done in time for spring break and the start of beach season. The fastest way to complete an overbuild we wanted to do on several rooftops was to bring in a sky crane helicopter to deliver the equipment to the rooftops.
Do you ever get complaints from customers?
All the time. I had a complaint this week from a gentleman in semi-rural Mississippi. His neighbor leased us the land to build a cell tower, but he was not too happy about it. And he’s letting our crews know about it every day. He makes a morning trip to drive by and yells a few things at them from the road. It’s tough – we’re there for a purpose and to serve a need, but you don’t want to be a bad neighbor either.
What do people take for granted about the wireless industry?
In today’s world, a cell phone is not a luxury; it’s really a life-line. Think about it: When’s the last time you went into a gas station and found a map? They don’t exist anymore. Every morning when I get in my vehicle, I put on the Waze app and let it tell me the best way to get to work. The location service is something that we 100% take for granted. You blindly go wherever that phone tells you to go. It’s almost scary.
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