Thursday, May 23, 2019

Rural wireless carriers scrambling in wake of ban on Chinese companies that supply key hardware, software

Last week President Trump banned U.S. telecommunications networks from buying or using equipment from "foreign adversaries," a move apparently targeting China. But that will mainly hurt small, rural carriers that rely on the inexpensive tech from Huawei, ZTE and similar companies. The move "left these small broadband companies under a cloud of uncertainty. If they can no longer rely on affordable foreign equipment to run their networks, will they run at all?" Suhauma Hussain and Alice Su report for the Los Angeles Times. "The move also left rural broadband companies that use Huawei equipment scrambling to figure out what it might mean for their day-to-day operations. Though small carriers don’t export to Huawei, they often need to send technical drawings or data to Huawei in order to maintain their current network infrastructure."

The Commerce Department announced Monday a 90-day window in which companies relying on Huawei equipment to keep operating. Rural carriers are unsure what will happen after that. "Rural broadband carriers could be forced to rip out and replace entire networks because they wouldn’t be able to import spare parts or software updates to maintain infrastructure," Hussain and Su report.

What does that look like for small carriers? John Nettles, president of Alabama carrier Pine Belt Communications, says replacing his company's network "would cost $5 million to $10 million. And downtime from installing new equipment would probably cause Pine Belt to forgo $1 million to $3 million in roaming fees, according to Federal Communications Commission filings," Hussain and Su report. Pine Belt has about 40 employees and around 60 cell sites, and provides 4G coverage in farming areas overlooked by big providers.

"I’m aware of the need to have secure networks. We’re not trying to suggest security is not an important consideration," Nettles told Hussain and Su. "But how do you balance it with providing service to underserved markets — which is mainly where we operate?"

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday to provide $700 million in grants to help U.S. telecoms providers replace Huawei and ZTE equipment. "The Rural Wireless Association, which represents carriers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers, estimates that 25 percent of its members have Huawei and ZTE in their networks, and have said it would cost $800 million to $1 billion to replace it," Makini Brice reports for Reuters.

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