Exploring Sterlite's Fiber Innovations and Industry Insights - ETI
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December 20, 2023

Exploring Sterlite’s Fiber Innovations and Industry Insights

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Brad Hine:

Hello everyone in broadband land. Welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m your host, Brad Hine. And today, we are onsite at the Gaylord Palms Conference Center in Orlando, Florida at the 2023 Fiber Connect Conference put on by the Fiber Broadband Association. Today, I have with me Daniel Romer. Daniel, could you introduce yourself to our audience, please?

Daniel Romer:

Yes. Thank you, Brad. So, I’m Daniel Romer. I’m the sales director at Sterlite or STL, based in Columbia, South Carolina.

Brad Hine:

So, is this your first time at Fiber Connect?

Daniel Romer:

No, this would be my fourth time.

Brad Hine:

Oh, okay. Nice. Well, that’s good to know. Is this consecutive years or over the last many?

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, we’ve been at the last four. I will say they get bigger and better every year. So, I think we’re up to 4,000 registrants now, and it’s amazing to see.

Brad Hine:

Yeah, it’s a bit out of control, I feel like, this year. But I love it.

Daniel Romer:

The booths are wild. People are going crazy, but it’s still manageable. We’re good.

Shining a Spotlight on Sterlite

Brad Hine:

And I saw your booth while doing my normal morning run-through. I was walking through all the aisles, and I saw the Sterlite, STL, booth. And it was awesome. It’s brighter and shinier than most booths out there.

Daniel Romer:

Yeah. Our marketing guy, Shivam, did a great job. This is his first big trade show in the US, so I know he was nervous. But he pulled it off.

Brad Hine:

So, we’ll just get down to it. Tell us a little about Sterlite and what they’re currently doing in the space right now.

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, absolutely. So, Sterlite has a 30-year history of making communication cables. It started with copper and then it branched into fiber, both bare fiber and fiber cable. And our journey into the US, we’re about three and a half years in. I joined the company back in April 2020. And we saw a big need in the market for more supplies, and we were able to jump into that hole and fill it up.

So, we supply fiber cable. We make the fiber ourselves; we make the cable ourselves. And we’re actually one month away from the grand opening of our factory in South Carolina.

Sterlite’s Evolution and International Expansion

Brad Hine:

Oh, congratulations. Yeah. And as I mentioned to you earlier today, I had a chance to speak to Ty in your booth. And he was telling us of opening up in South Carolina. But you mentioned a little bit more of the history and where you guys have come from. This is truly a global company. Can you give me a little bit of that?

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, absolutely. So, our parent company is based in Mumbai, India. It all started as a mining company. And we had copper mines and silica mines, and then they needed to do something with the raw materials. So that’s how the copper cable and the fiber cable were born. And today, we’re still in over 100 countries. We have factories in five different countries. We’re truly a global supplier of cable.

Brad Hine:

You started in Mumbai, where did you evolve to? What continents and countries and in what order? Give us a little bit of that timeline.

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, so over the last 30 years, Sterlite has been the cable and fiber provider in India in the home base. Over the years, it expanded to the Middle East and Africa. Then Europe became one of the major markets. Over the years, the company has been in and out of North America based on the cyclical market. If it was a high cycle and there was a need for additional cable, Sterlite would come and import some of the cable.

But then, three and a half years ago, they really made the conscious decision to be here and transform into that domestic supplier that we are going to be today with the factory here. And that’s been a fun journey.

Unlocking the Power of Local Manufacturing

Brad Hine:

Great, great. So being in the US or in North America and setting up shop here in South Carolina, strategically, what does that mean to Sterlite? How does your product differentiate itself from the rest of the industry? Fiber is fiber, right? But everyone makes it just a little bit different. So, what’s that uniqueness that you guys supply to the market?

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, setting up shop in the US was a major goal for our company and a massive milestone. I’m not sure that I would say fiber is fiber, especially the glass itself. There’s a lot of technology and intelligence behind it. And for us to be able to cable it here in the US and bring our global supply chain, our global experience, and really the global footprint to the local markets in the US is massive.

I think we’ve all seen during COVID what the supply chain did how it broke and the disruptions it cost. And for us to be able to cut out the whole ocean transit and make everything local, create jobs in America, and build products here for the local market is great.

Sterlite’s Remarkable Rise in the US Market

Brad Hine:

About how large are you then in the US and then globally at this point in size of employees?

Daniel Romer:

So the employee number, I think we’re around 2,000, but I could be off. As far as revenue goes, we’re a billion-dollar company globally.

Brad Hine:

Fabulous.

Daniel Romer:

And in the US, we have a double-digit market share now after three years of being here.

Brad Hine:

Right. And we spoke about that a little earlier. So you have only been here three years. Tell us a little bit about that journey and how much you’ve been able to grow this business.

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, absolutely. So when I started, we had a couple of big customers in Latin America and a couple in the US. But there was not a whole business behind it. So I was brought in. We brought some other people and the idea was really to fill a void in the market. I mean, back in 2020, COVID was just starting, but also the market was at an all-time high. So there were a lot of supply chain disruptions.

The domestic guys couldn’t keep up with the lead times. Customers were really asking for people to step in and help. So we saw that hole in the market. We were able to step into that hole, work with good quality products, and steady lead times, and partnerships were born there.

Navigating the Unpredictable Fiber Market

Brad Hine:

That’s great. How is that shaping up? Is supply line healing? Is it healed, or do we see certain parts that are healed? What’s your experience now?

Daniel Romer:

Well, that’s a funny question. I’m speaking tomorrow on the state of the industry at the fiber theater. And the weirdest thing has happened. The market has come down 45% in the last four months. So we went from a record high to a crash that resembles the dot-com bubble in the late ’90s, and early 2000s.

Brad Hine:

Oh, boy.

Daniel Romer:

What happened is there was a lot of inventory buildup and overbuying by pretty much everybody. From the big guys to the small guys to contractors, everybody had 9 to 12 months of inventory. With rising interest rates, some loosening of the supply chain with COVID getting better, and the pandemic going away, it was the perfect storm for people to stop buying more products.

So that’s where we are now. Lead times have gone from 80 weeks to four to six weeks.

Brad Hine:

Wow.

Daniel Romer:

The difference with the dot-com bubble is that this is temporary. It’s not going to last three years like that recession did. This is going to be another six, nine months maybe, and we’re going to be back to 40-plus week lead times because we know there’s going to be so much money out there to build networks. And everybody’s still building today so that as soon as the inventory is burned through, we’re back to where we were.

Solutions for a Changing Industry Landscape

Brad Hine:

Well, that’s good news. It’s good to know that we’re healing, and we’re getting past that. I know you guys have some new products. I said fiber is fiber earlier. I’m glad you corrected me because I want to know all that technology that’s built into that that differentiates you at each layer of that fiber cable.

So tell us a little bit about some of the innovations you guys are doing. And with this new product, what kind of need that bring to the market to solve some of the challenges that maybe your customers are having?

Daniel Romer:

Yeah. I mean, I think the statement you made that the fiber is fiber or cable is cable, is something a lot of people think and believe in. And to a point, that may be the case. But when you drill down to it, even within the fiber, there are a lot of different specs. Within the industry, there are different grades. You can have the standard 652.D that everybody knows, but then you have the 657.A1, which is a more bend-insensitive fiber, which means easier to work with.

So what we have done since day one is standardized on the bend-insensitive fiber. So the craft people in the fields have more room for error. If they put a small bend in the cable, the fiber, it’s more forgiving. It’s easier to work with, and you’re not going to get penalized for your network performance. So that’s one thing we’re very big on, and we’re going to continue doing that.

As far as the cable is concerned, you have a lot of different designs, families, fiber counts, weight, how you make it, and how you deploy it. And the biggest challenge we’re seeing right now, and Fiber Broadband Association has done a ton of research on this, is in order to meet Biden’s promise to have 100% of the homes connected by 2030, this country needs about one and a half million installers and splicers.

We currently have about 700,000, maybe 800,000. So that means, first of all, there’s a labor shortage. Second of all, the people who are going to place the cable are going to be new to the industry, new to the craft, and probably not trained as well. The splicers with 30 years of experience, that is not out there anymore. So what we can do as a supplier is make the product as easy to work with as possible.

So what that means is smaller cables, easier jackets, or easier products to open up and get into, more forgiving fiber so the people that are in the field that don’t have experience don’t have to be as good as they might’ve had to be 10 years ago.

Ensuring Success in Fiber Broadband Deployments

Brad Hine:

So that’s going to lead me to another question to start peeling these onion skins back. Education — how much do you have to invest in education to companies that become your customers at this point then?

Daniel Romer:

A lot. The sale doesn’t end at the order and delivery. You really must be on site and walk them through it. Every cable supplier has small, little nuances to their cable like how to work with it or how to prep it. But more than anything, it comes down to experience. So we want to be there with the customer and make sure they feel supported. If there are issues, we’re going to be there to walk them through it and show them how it’s used. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t do that, people are going to run into issues just due to a lack of experience.

Brad Hine:

Yeah, I hear you. I see a lot of making sure education is forefront for the whole industry and making sure, as this generation of fiber broadband workers and employees, the workforce across the country starts to retire, that we make sure that we don’t skip a beat, we don’t miss anything, and folks are educated and can get right back on the horse, so to speak, and start supporting all that fiber.

Do you see that growing anymore? I mean, at this point, I like to hear that there’s some handholding going on afterward. And I see it, especially in a lot of these rural deployments. I mean, people are coming from a different industry, the electrical industry or telephone co-op systems, and all of a sudden, they’re in charge of this high-speed fiber network. So clearly, on the deployment of all this, you guys are going to be needed right up front for this continuing education.

The Challenge of Attracting Talent to the Telecom Industry

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, and it really is a big problem. Just today alone, we spoke to a couple of end users, a couple of our competitors, and other suppliers, and everybody’s doing the same thing. They’re working with local community colleges. They’re trying to educate and say, “Guys, it’s not a sexy field, but it’s an important field. There are jobs for you for the next 30 years. The pay is very good. Please come learn a trade.”

The problem is, or the challenge is, I guess, that if you look at the broadband or the infrastructure funding that’s out there now, broadband is part of it, but so are railroads and highways. So you’re not only competing… you’re competing with that. Then you’re competing with other trades that are just in as much despair as the telecom industry is.

So there’s a lot of competition for very small labor or interest pool because nobody seems to want to learn this today. This is a problem that needs to be solved. And the FBA is doing a ton of educating and training on this. So there’s definitely a lot of strides being made, but I think we’re still far from where we need to be.

From Sports Management to Telecom

Brad Hine:

Wow. I know we’re getting there, and it’s a step-by-step process. Tell us a little bit about how you got into this industry. Obviously, it’s a very highly technical field. How did you get hooked onto the technical side early on?

Daniel Romer:

I think, like most people, it was an accident; and now I’m trapped. I went to school for sports management. Then, I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, a city with no professional sports. Through some contacts, I happened to know, I ended up at the largest cable manufacturer in the world, rolled into the telecom industry, and spent seven years there learning the ropes and going from customer service to outside sales and understanding networks and the need.

Once you’re in it, it’s a very interesting industry. There’s so much happening. It’s very dynamic. And right now, we’re in a once-in-a-lifetime cycle with $45 billion of public investment. There’s private money everywhere. Everybody is building. Broadband has really become a utility that people need and want. Next to power, it’s one of the more important things people care about when they pick out a house or where they’re going to live. And I think COVID has exposed a lot of that. So it’s been very, very interesting, and I still learn every day. It’s a lot of fun.

Broadband in Today’s Digital Age

Brad Hine:

It’s interesting. I’ve said this before, maybe once or twice on the podcast. But living in the southeast like I do, similar to South Carolina, in the winter, you might go without gas heat for a couple of days. And you put a blanket on. You wait for them to come and fix your gas line. Even the water utility. I can go to the grocery store and buy 10 or 20 gallons of water if I need it if something’s happening with my water line. My broadband, if it’s down for 15 minutes, and every member of my family is yelling and screaming throughout the house.

Daniel Romer:

I have two boys, six and four. And you would think at that age, it doesn’t matter. But nope. Within two minutes, if the internet is out, Netflix doesn’t work or Disney doesn’t work, you hear about it. And it’s even so bad that we went from having fiber to the house to living in a place where we didn’t have fiber. We had DSL, and then back to fiber.

The difference is real, and you don’t realize it until you live through it. But having that fiber connection that always works, whether it’s storming outside like now where every day there seems to be thunderstorms, it always works. And it’s hard to live without it. It’s crazy to say, but it’s really almost impossible.

The Growing Demand for High-Speed Connectivity

Brad Hine:

Yeah, agree. We talked about COVID and how we needed connectivity — the kids to their schools and healthcare and remote jobs and working. But even today, the capacity in all the different devices we’re feeding at home, just doesn’t work unless you have high speed. And plus, kids are still required to do remote work where they must have connectivity at home even though they’re going to class every day, too.

Daniel Romer:

Yeah. I mean, even my six-year-old has tablets to take at home to do work after school. Or if the teacher can’t come, and you have to do e-learning for a day. And this all started during COVID. This morning, during one of the keynote speeches, somebody asked, “Who here has more than 50 devices connected in their house?” And you look around, there are only a couple of hands going up.

I checked on my phone, I got 183 devices. And I don’t think it’s anything crazy, but it’s alarm systems, TVs, tablets, and phones. It’s everything from little sensors to dishwashers and fridges. People don’t understand how much it’s connected today and how much bandwidth that eats up.

A Journey to America

Brad Hine:

You’re right, you’re right. I think I called my provider. And we have fiber in my little area in Atlanta, and they mentioned how many devices I had online. They said, “Well, you currently have 57 devices online.” And I thought, “I think it’s more than that. Isn’t it more?”

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, it’s crazy.

Brad Hine:

Yeah. So you’re not originally from the US. I noticed a little accent. Tell us about where you’re from and how you grew up.

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, I was born and raised in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam. I lived there for the first 18 years of my life. Then, I came to the US for a study abroad program. And my mom told me, “Don’t fall in love,” and she shouldn’t have said anything. My second semester I did. And we’re now married. So I stayed and finished my school here and got married to her. I now have two little boys and live in Columbia. So I’ll be here for a long time.

Comparing Fiber Deployment

Brad Hine:

Wow. So do you still have ties back in Europe? Are there ongoing reports? Obviously, you guys are a global company. So how does the situation in Europe compare to what it’s like in the US right now in terms of connectivity and rural areas? How is that working?

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, so Europe is, I would say, ahead of North America when it comes to fiber deployment. They have way more homes connected, but it’s also way more densely populated. There are bigger urban areas, but not as much rural. I think if you look at the US, the urban areas are pretty well-built out. The last 50% we’re trying to connect now is a lot of rural networks, smaller towns, farms, and stuff like that.

So they’re ahead of that, but there’s a lot of investment going on there. So the European market is still at an all-time high. It’s still constrained. And just like we see labor issues here, they see labor issues there. I was talking to somebody today; they’re flying in installers from Scotland to work in Germany. It’s stuff you could never imagine, but it’s all of the same challenges.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Fiber Industry

Brad Hine:

Wow. So you mentioned a little bit ago in your session tomorrow that you’ll be speaking. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re going to be speaking about? You gave us the title but give us something to grow on so maybe the next time we speak, you can update us on some of this too.

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, it’s very quick. It’s a 15-minute session. It’s really just giving the state of the union for the industry. Hopefully, my competitors and counter suppliers can walk away feeling more hopeful, and the customers walk away feeling a little more warned about what’s to come. I really do think that this lull has everybody comfortable. And what’s going to happen is what happens every time. People are going to wake up one day, inventory’s been burned through, and they’re used to four-week lead times. They’re all going to call at the same time. And lead times will go from four to six weeks to 20 to 40 overnight.

Luckily, as a supplier in the cable world, we have a lot of insight into a lot of good data research by CRU, J.C. Jones, and a lot of people doing a lot of good work. So we see what’s coming. We see the builds are still happening. It’s really just an inventory position issue. So this market is poised to explode again. And I hope all my customers listen because they’ll be ahead of the curve if they do.

Contact Information and Future Updates

Brad Hine:

Well, amen. Amen. So as we wind this episode down for the Broadband Bunch, if our listeners want to get in touch with you or with Sterlite, STL, can you let them know how to do that?

Daniel Romer:

Yeah, the easiest way would be to go to the website, www.stl.tech, T-E-C-H. All the contact info is on there. They can email, call, reach out, and then we’ll get back to them.

Brad Hine:

Fabulous. Well, from everybody at Broadband Bunch, I appreciate you coming by to talk to us. Like I said, I’m going to hold you to it. We definitely want to update sometime in the future. We’d like to chat with you again and see how your year is going. As the BEAD money comes out and gets assigned, I’d love to check back with you and see your perspective on the industry.

Daniel Romer:

Absolutely. I’d be happy to.

Brad Hine:

Well, thanks again, Daniel. Have a great show.

Daniel Romer:

Thank you.

Brad Hine:

Thanks. Bye-bye.

© 2023 Enhanced Telecommunications.

About the Author

Brad Hine - Director, Partner/Channel Development

With over 16 years in the telecom software industry, Brad Hine specializes in product management, sales and channel development.  He is currently the Director of Partner Development at ETI Software Solutions, out of Atlanta, GA.  Brad’s demonstrated experience is in BSS/OSS solutions, geospatial strategy for telecoms and combining them to create operational efficiency through real-time, data-driven dashboards.  He has been a frequent conference speaker for the Fiber Broadband Association and Broadband Communities Summit and is a host of The Broadband Bunch, a podcast about broadband and how it impacts our communities. He is an alumnus of the University of Georgia.