All the way back in July 2021, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously to institute a $1.9 billion “rip-and-replace” effort to subsidize the costs for smaller network operators to rid their networks of Chinese-made equipment, mostly from Huawei and ZTE. These firms’ wares have been deemed to pose a national security risk, as the FBI found that the attractively priced Chinese gear was turning up atop cellular towers in unnervingly close proximity to a number of midwestern U.S. military installations.
This all sounds like a prudent plan, one that’s attracting bipartisan legislative support especially in light of the Chinese spy balloons and “secret police stations” that have been exposed in recent months. If you can get Republican and Democrat members of Congress to agree on anything, it must be important. The prospect of Chinese intelligence using telecom gear to harvest military and/or commercial secrets is not to be taken lightly.
But as with many of the “best laid plans of mice and men,” there are a few stumbling blocks. For one, as of about a year ago, the FCC reported to Congress that two-thirds of the applications it had received thus far from network operators for rip-and-replace reimbursements were “materially deficient,” which is to say they weren’t completed to the FCC’s satisfaction.
However, the bigger problem was that the FCC’s cost estimate to remove all of the Huawei/ZTE equipment was $5.3 billion, far higher than the $1.9 billion initially appropriated by Congress. Demand for the funding among small, rural telecom network operators quickly outstripped supply. Thus, the FCC began a triaging effort that had been mandated by Congress, allocating funding to approved applicants with 2 million or fewer customers. Yet, the FCC says it has received 126 applications for funding that go beyond its $1.9 billion appropriation.
Recently, the situation was well illustrated by a New York Times article that covered the plight of family-owned Pine Belt Cellular in Alabama. Small carriers like Pine Belt are struggling financially as it is. Now, amid a faltering rip-and-replace effort, it struggles technically as well, because its remaining ZTE equipment doesn’t play nice with its new Nokia gear.
Deb Fischer, one of Nebraska’s two U.S. Senators, has co-sponsored (with Colorado’s U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper) emergency legislation to shore up the $3-billion-plus shortfall in funding for the nation’s rip-and-replace efforts. Faced with insufficient funding, small regional carriers like Pine Belt Cellular will either sink under the weight of the burden, or, at best, end up with networks of reduced size. Either way, the rural regions of the U.S. that are most in need of wireless infrastructure will find themselves facing a setback.
Let’s hope that Sens. Fischer and Hickenlooper’s Defend Our Networks Act attracts the full bipartisan support it needs to do the right thing—helping small regional networks rid themselves of the Chinese-made equipment and, in so doing, strengthening our national security.