Wireless service technicians are responsible for maintaining a specified group of cell sites, including the radio towers, cell site equipment, and often the building and grounds for the sites. Technicians routinely visit and monitor the functioning of the on-site equipment, performing preventive testing and maintenance. They are also responsible for troubleshooting and remedying problems that might arise with any of their sites. Most wireless service technicians spend their work time at various locations, visiting each of their cell sites as necessary.
Wireless Service Technician Career History
The concept of cellular communication, as it is used today, was developed by Bell Laboratories in the late 1940s. However, it was based on a much older concept: using radio waves to transmit signals over distances. The concept of communicating via radio waves dates back to the late 1800s, when an Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi discovered that radio signals could be transmitted for more than a mile. By 1905, many ships at sea were routinely using Marconi’s invention to communicate with the shore.
Cellular radio, which is essentially today’s cellular phone service, was first tested in two U.S. markets in the 1970s. This system, a miniature version of large radio networks, was named “cellular” because its broadcast area is divided into smaller units called cells. Each cell was equipped with its own radio tower, with a range of between 1 and 2.5 miles. As a mobile “radiophone” moved through the network of cells, its calls were switched from one cell to another by a computerized system. As long as the radiophone stayed within this network of cells, wireless communication was possible; once outside the system of cells, however, the connection was lost. After its initial tests in Chicago and Washington, D.C., the cellular network was soon duplicated in other towns and cities. As more and more areas throughout the country became “covered” with these networks of cells, it became possible to use cellular phones in more places, and the use of these phones became increasingly widespread.
In 1981, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that the wireless industry would be regulated. By FCC orders, only two competing wireless service providers could be licensed to operate in each geographic market. The FCC also announced that it would begin licensing in 306 large metropolitan areas first. Licensing in rural service areas would come shortly thereafter. As licensing got underway and cellular service was provided in more areas, the number of wireless service users grew at a rapid pace. By the end of the 1980s, there were almost 4 million cellular subscribers in the United States. By 1992, there were more than 10 million users, 9,000 cell sites, and 1,500 cellular systems throughout the country.
Also in 1992, Ameritech began the country’s first commercial trials of digital wireless technology. Digital wireless technology changed the voice to numeric computer code before transmitting it, providing better sound quality and clarity than the traditional, or analog, cellular technology, which carried the voice through radio waves. With continued improvements, digital technology is expected to eventually replace analog cellular phones completely.
The wireless industry experienced a major change in 1993, when the Omnibus Reconciliation Act was passed. This legislation opened up competition among wireless providers by allowing as many as nine wireless companies to operate in a single market, instead of the two that were previously allowed. With the rapid growth of wireless service throughout the United States, there has been an increased need for qualified, trained people to manage and service the equipment. Each cell site for each wireless carrier requires constant maintenance and troubleshooting to ensure that wireless coverage is not interrupted. The responsibility for maintaining this highly important and expensive equipment is the job of the wireless service technician—a key player in the wireless industry.
According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, in 2005 there were more than 207 million wireless users in the United States.
Wireless Service Technician Job Description
Wireless service technicians are sometimes also called cell site technicians, field technicians, or cell site engineers. These workers maintain cell sites—which consist of a radio tower and computerized equipment. Each cell site covers a geographic territory that varies in size. When someone places a wireless call within a particular cell site’s geographic territory, radio waves are transmitted to that cell site’s antenna. The antenna picks up the radio waves and transmits them through cables to computerized equipment that is typically located in a building adjacent to the antenna. This equipment then “reads” the radio waves, turns them into a computerized code, and sends the information on to a “switching center.” At the switching center, the call is transferred to its destination— which might be another wireless phone or a traditional wire line phone.
The equipment at each cell site—the antenna and computerized equipment—are important pieces of the wireless telecommunications network. If a cell site stops functioning for some reason, wireless users within that site’s coverage area may not be able to use their mobile phones. Since many people rely on these devices to receive or transmit important or emergency information, a lapse in coverage can be very serious. Wireless service technicians are responsible for maintaining and troubleshooting the equipment and operations of the cell sites. The majority of cellular communication is currently voice transmissions. However, wireless service is increasingly being used to transmit data, for purposes such as Internet access. The data transmission equipment may be a separate, peripheral part of the cell site equipment, and the technician is responsible for maintaining it as well.
Diane Litchko is a Technical Staffing Manager for Bell Atlantic Mobile. She hires employees who oversee Bell Atlantic Mobile’s cell sites—called Field Engineer-Cells. Litchko says that each field engineer is responsible for a group of cell sites. “Engineers are responsible for the cell site tower, the equipment on the tower, and the cell site equipment in an adjacent building,” she says. “It’s very complex electronic equipment.”
Wireless service technicians typically perform both routine, preventive maintenance and troubleshooting of equipment that has malfunctioned. Routine maintenance might include scheduled visits to each cell site to check power levels and computer functions. Technicians often carry laptop computers, which contain sophisticated testing software. By connecting their laptop computers to the cell site equipment, technicians can test to make sure the equipment is functioning as it should. Wireless carriers may also have backup equipment, such as generators and batteries, at their cell sites to ensure that even if the primary system fails, wireless coverage is still maintained. Technicians may periodically check this backup equipment to make sure it is functional and ready to be used in case of emergency. In addition to maintaining the actual cell site computer equipment, wireless service technicians may be responsible for routine and preventive maintenance of the radio tower itself and the building and grounds of the site. In many cases, technicians do not perform the actual physical maintenance on the tower and grounds themselves. Rather, they contract with other service providers to do so and are then responsible for ensuring that the work meets appropriate standards and is done when needed.
The frequency of the scheduled visits to individual cell sites depends on the technician’s employer and the number of sites the technician is responsible for. For example, a technician who is responsible for 10 to 15 sites might be required to visit each site monthly to perform routine, preventive maintenance. In some cases, these sites may be very close together—perhaps within blocks of each other. In other cases, in less populated areas, the sites may be more than 20 miles apart.
When cell site equipment malfunctions, wireless service technicians are responsible for identifying the problem and making sure that it is repaired. “The engineers must isolate the problem—it could be a service outage from the weather, an equipment failure, an antenna problem, a security breach,” says Litchko. “Really, anything that goes wrong with the site is the engineer’s responsibility.” Technicians run diagnostic tests on the equipment to determine where the malfunction is. If the problem is one that can be easily solved—for example, by replacing a piece of equipment—the technician handles it. If it is something more serious, such as a problem with the antenna or with the local wire line telecommunications system, the technician calls the appropriate service people to remedy the situation.
In addition to routine maintenance and troubleshooting responsibilities, wireless service technicians may have a range of other duties. They may test the wireless system by driving around the coverage area while using a mobile phone. They may work with technicians in the switching center to incorporate new cell sites into the network and make sure that the wireless calls are smoothly transmitted from one cell to another.
Wireless Service Technician Career Requirements
According to Diane Litchko, wireless service technicians who work for Bell Atlantic Mobile (now Verizon Wireless) are required to have at least a two-year degree in electronics or electronic technology. “It could be a technical school or a junior college,” she says. “But a two-year degree is the minimum.”
If you are interested in pursuing a career as a wireless service technician, you should take high school classes that will prepare you for further schooling in electronics. Physics classes will provide the background necessary to understand the theory of electronics. Because wireless service technician jobs are so heavily computer-oriented, computer classes are also excellent choices, according to Litchko. “You should have a strong understanding of computers, data communications, and Windows,” she says. Other important classes are those that will provide you with the basic abilities needed both in college and in the workplace—such as English, speech, and mathematics courses.
A two-year associate’s degree in a technical field is the minimum educational level needed to become a wireless service technician. Many technicians obtain degrees in electronics or electronic technology. For these degrees, course work would likely include both classes and laboratory work in circuit theory, digital electronics, microprocessors, computer troubleshooting, telecommunications, and data communications technology. Other students might opt for degrees in telecommunications management or computer science. Students working toward a telecommunications degree might take classes on such subjects as local area networks, advanced networking technologies, network management, and programming. Computer science courses might include such topics as programming, operating systems, computer languages, and network architecture. Although most wireless service technicians have two-year degrees, some may have four-year degrees in computer science, telecommunications, electronic engineering, or other similar subjects.
No matter what sort of educational background new technicians have, they have to learn about the specific equipment used by their employers. Most wireless carriers send their technicians through formal education programs, which are typically offered by equipment manufacturers. In these programs, new technicians learn the operating specifics of the equipment they will be maintaining. A new technician is usually given a smaller number of cell sites to manage when he or she first begins and may be paired with a more experienced technician who can answer questions and conduct on-the-job training.
The ability to work independently is one of the most important characteristics of a good wireless service technician. Most technicians work on their own, traveling from site to site and performing their duties with little or no supervision. “Our engineers work very independently,” Litchko says. “So, they have to have the discipline and self-motivation to make their own schedules and set their own priorities.” It is also important that technicians be highly responsible. “They must be absolutely reliable and dependable,” Litchko says. “They are responsible for all the equipment at the cell sites, which is incredibly expensive, important equipment.”
The willingness to learn and to adapt to change is another key personality trait of successful wireless service technicians. “This job is a constant learning process,” says Litchko. “The technology is always changing, so you constantly need to learn new equipment. A person needs to be interested in learning and growing.”
Finally, because so much of the job involves traveling between cell sites, a technician must have a valid driver’s license and good driving record.
Wireless Service Technician Career Path
If you think you might be interested in becoming a wireless service technician, you might first want to explore the ins and outs of electronics, which is a key part of the technician’s job. There are numerous books on electronics and electronic theory, geared to various levels of expertise. Check with your high school or local public library to see what you can find on this topic. In addition, many hobby shops or specialty science stores have electronics kits and experiments that allow young people to get some hands-on experience with how electronic circuits work.
To find out more about wireless communications specifically, you might again check for books or magazine articles on the subject in local libraries. You might also contact a wireless provider in your area and ask to talk with a cell technician about his or her job.
There are dozens of wireless service providers, both large and small, all over the United States. Anywhere that there is wireless service—that is, anywhere that you can use a cellular phone—there is a cell site, owned and maintained by a wireless provider. Some of the largest wireless providers are AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, Cingular Wireless, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Qwest. All of these companies have Web sites, and most maintain a listing of available jobs on their site.
In addition to these major players, there are smaller wireless carriers sprinkled throughout the United States in virtually every medium-sized and large community. You should be able to find a list of them by asking your local librarian for help or by doing a key word search on “wireless service providers” on the Internet.
One of the best ways to start looking for a job as a wireless service technician is to visit the Web sites of several wireless providers. Many wireless companies maintain jobs sections on their sites, which list available positions. Another possibility, according to Diane Litchko, is to browse through wireless industry publications, such as Wireless Week (http://www.wirelessweek.com/). “The industry magazines usually contain job postings, so they can be an excellent starting point,” she says.
Another way to find your first wireless technician’s job is to look for and attend technical job fairs, expos, or exchanges. Because technically and technologically skilled employees are so much in demand, communities frequently have events to allow employers to network with and meet potential employees. Watch local newspapers for similar events in your community. Finally, an excellent source of job leads will be your college’s placement office. Many wireless companies visit schools that offer the appropriate degree programs to recruit qualified students for employees. Some companies even offer a co-op program, in which they hire students on a part-time basis while they are still in school.
In some companies, a natural path of advancement for a wireless service technician is becoming a switch technician or switch engineer. The switch technician works at the “switching center,” which controls the routing of the wireless phone calls. “The switching center is the brains of the operation, which actually controls everything,” Diane Litchko says. “So a switch person needs to have a broader understanding of the system, and may also have cell site experience.”
Another avenue of advancement might be to move into system performance. System performance workers strive to maximize the performance of the wireless system. They run tests and make adjustments to ensure that the system is providing the best possible coverage in all areas and that signals from the different cell sites do not interfere with each other.
Because there is such a demand for qualified and dependable employees in the wireless field, the qualified wireless technician can expect to receive a good salary. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nonsupervisory workers in telephone communications earned a median salary of $853 a week, or approximately $44,350 annually, in 2005. Telecommunications Equipment Installers and Repairers earned between $31,630 and $66,990 a year.
The job generally comes with other benefits as well. Many wireless companies provide their service technicians with company vehicles. Cellular phones and laptop computers, which technicians need to perform their work, are also common perks. Finally, most major wireless service providers offer a benefits package to their employees, which often includes health insurance, paid vacation, holiday, and sick days, and a pension or 401(k) plan.
Cell site technicians who are in charge of several cell sites spend their workweek visiting the different sites. Depending on how far apart the sites are, this may mean driving a substantial distance. While the actual computer equipment is located inside a building at each cell site location, any work or routine checking of the radio tower requires outside work, in varying kinds of weather. According to Diane Litchko, Bell Atlantic Mobile technicians are assigned a home base—either an office or one of the cell sites—from which they travel out to maintain the other sites. However, their “offices” are really completely portable: from their cellular phones and laptop computers, they can do their work anywhere. “The key is that they are totally mobile,” Litchko says. “Through either phone lines or wireless connections, they can tap into the computer system at any of the cell sites. They truly live in a wireless, mobile environment.”
This is important because the management of cell sites is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week business. If an alarm system goes off at three in the morning, a cell site technician must respond. The ability to access the system remotely from his or her laptop computer may save the technician an actual trip to the site. Because the sites must be maintained continuously, wireless service technicians are likely to sometimes work unusual hours. Litchko’s technicians work regular hours, for the most part, but they take turns being “on call” to handle emergencies. “How often you have to be on call depends upon the number of people on a rotation schedule,” she says.
Most wireless service technicians are not very closely supervised. They generally set their own schedules (with management concurrence) and work alone and independently. They may, however, have to work closely at times with other company employees to integrate new sites into the system, make modifications to the system, or troubleshoot problems.
Wireless Service Technician Career Outlook
According to the U. S. Department of Labor, employment in the telecommunications industry is expected to grow at a rate that is slightly slower than the average. This is mainly due to vast improvements in telecommunications equipment and the automation of system monitoring and repair. However, rising demand for wireless services and the creation of new wireless networks should ensure job opportunities for workers in this segment of the industry.
There are several reasons for the growing popularity of wireless service. Perhaps the most significant is the steady decrease in prices for cellular service. Since 1988, the average monthly bill for wireless service has gone from approximately $100 to approximately $41, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. A second reason for the increase in usage is that coverage areas are increasingly broad and comprehensive. As more and more cell sites are added, more and more parts of the United States have cellular service. Areas that previously had no wireless service are being covered—and consequently, more people have access to and use for cellular phones and pagers.
A third factor in the growth is the continuous improvement in cellular phones and services due to technological advances. One of the most recent innovations is digital communication technology called “personal communications services” (PCS). PCS is expected to increase wireless phone use by offering better quality and range. New technologies are also increasingly allowing people to transmit data as well as voice over wireless connections. Examples of wireless data communication include such applications as text messaging and Internet access.
In recent years there has also been an increase in the number of wireless companies. This growth was spurred by the Federal Communications Commission’s partial deregulation of the industry in 1993, which allowed for as many as nine carriers in a geographic market. This competition has added a large number of technicians’ jobs and is expected to continue to do so.