Washington, D.C. – The Rural Wireless Association, Inc. (RWA) applauds CoBank’s latest Report “Funding Uncertainties Wreak Havoc for Rural Communications at the Worst Time Possible” authored by economist, Jeff Johnston. The CoBank report concludes that “[r]ural wireless operators with Chinese-made equipment have been operating under a great deal of uncertainty for several years” in not knowing how to proceed with network upgrades. The report states further that “[a]s a result, they have fallen woefully behind the national operators, which has expanded the digital divide.” This uncertainty, in addition to the struggles caused by the pandemic, has created further angst in a political climate where an unanimously approved, bi-partisan, bi-cameral piece of legislation, the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, has not yet been funded almost 8 months after its enactment. The Secure Networks Act is specifically designed to replace the Huawei and ZTE equipment at issue and authorizes government funding to effectuate such replacement. While the House has passed an appropriations bill authorizing $1 billion to start the replacement process, which is expected by the FCC to cost upwards of $1.6 billion in total, the Senate has neither budgeted nor approved a similar amount as part of the appropriations process, despite attempts to do so by Republican Senator Roger Wicker, Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Johnston concludes in the report that “[i]n the near term, operators need funding certainty and defined rules of engagement. Until then, they are stuck in a holding pattern that jeopardizes rural residents’ access to any wireless communication services.” RWA urges the Senate to appropriate at least $1 billion as part of the fiscal year 2021 appropriations process so that rural wireless carriers can continue to serve rural America. Failing to do so will put all Americans at risk of lost connectivity in rural areas and undermine the purpose of the Secure Networks Act, which is to ensure the removal of unsecure Chinese equipment from U.S. communications networks quickly to prevent future national security threats that could occur across all U.S. interconnected networks.