Today, the Rural Wireless Association, Inc. (RWA) filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC or Commission) Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) in response to a letter submitted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) requesting that the PSHSB immediately finalize the designations of Huawei and ZTE. RWA requests that the Commission issue a Declaratory Ruling walking back its characterization of the Universal Service Fund (USF) program as being akin to a loan or grant program that would subject the funding to the requirements of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (2019 NDAA), as it is rather a federal subsidy. Finalizing the designations now, under the FCC’s interpretation, would result in rural carriers, with either Huawei or ZTE equipment or services in their networks, being barred from using USF funding to support and maintain their critical networks while they wait for the FCC to approve the process for replacing the unsecure equipment and services under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act’s (Secure Networks Act) reimbursement program. Additionally, Congress must still appropriate funding for the reimbursement program.
In its Comments, RWA notes that the Commission no longer needs to pin its authority to the 2019 NDAA to lead this replace-and-remove program of unsecure equipment and services. The FCC should rely instead on the more recently enacted Secure Networks Act. If the FCC does not pivot to reliance on the Secure Networks Act, rural carriers will be put in jeopardy of not being able to maintain their vital networks for their customers after August 14, 2020 when provisions barring use of federal loans and grants for Huawei and ZTE equipment and services become effective. This would come at a time when rural Americans are heavily relying on broadband connectivity during this global pandemic.