Today, RWA members Pine Belt Cellular and Union Wireless, along with RWA’s General Counsel, Carri Bennet, participated in an FCC workshop dedicated to “finding, fixing, and funding” the problems associated with removing network equipment that poses national security risks. RWA suggested that the FCC hold such a workshop for stakeholders last December during ex parte meetings with the FCC. Entitled “Security Vulnerabilities within Our Communications Network: Find It, Fix It, Fund It,” and convened and moderated by Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, the workshop heavily focused on the anticipated problems rural carriers will face in the event they are forced to remove and replace Huawei and ZTE network equipment, which was bought for the express purpose of providing rural customers with cost-effective, high-quality wireless service.
An RWA representative was represented on all three of the workshop panels held, and on each panel a consistent theme was present: Rural carriers want to safeguard our nation’s security and will follow whatever policies Congress, the White House, and the FCC prescribe. However, in order to ensure these carriers can continue to serve their current customers and build out service to unserved areas, they will need government assistance. As RWA has previously advocated to the Commission, replacing existing Huawei and ZTE equipment used by RWA’s members will likely cost approximately $1 billion, and this figure could increase based on how quickly carriers will be forced to make this transition. The cost of this transition will be daunting on consumers as well, as their service could be interrupted and could force them to miss out on improved network service that rural carriers otherwise would have been able to afford.
According to Chris Reno, Chief Accounting Officer for RWA member Union Wireless, an immediate replacement of Union’s targeted equipment could cost upwards of $85 million and result in enormous opportunity costs. These costs are why government funding will be extremely important, said John Nettles, President of RWA member Pine Belt Cellular. As Mr. Nettles explained, “Many rural carriers originally purchased [Huawei and ZTE] equipment with subsidies provided by the government to meet the then-defined policy objective of extending 3G mobile voice and data service to unserved communities. If the government now wishes to establish a completely different, but equally important policy objective, it is no doubt completely reasonable for carriers like us to receive government assistance.”
“RWA has explained to the FCC that ripping and replacing rural carriers’ Huawei and ZTE equipment will be a costly endeavor that cannot occur overnight and that, once initiated, will require at least $1 billion in funding. Plain and simple, if these funds are not provided, the rural carriers who have strived to bring high-quality service to America’s underserved and unserved communities will suffer,” said Carri Bennet, RWA’s General Counsel. “RWA applauds Commissioner Starks for holding this timely stakeholder workshop and it looks forward to working with the Commission and all interested parties to resolve this critical issue.”