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Huawei fight is a threat to rural internet

Suhauna Hussain and Alice Su, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

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, said Roger Entner, a telecom analyst at Recon Analytics.

"If something breaks, what are you going to tell your customer? 'I'm sorry you have an outage. We don't know when we are going to fix it because it's Huawei equipment. Until then, sorry. No internet for you,'" Entner said. "You don't want to tell that to a customer."

Nettles estimates that replacing Pine Belt'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.

Carri Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Assn., a trade group for carriers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers, said her organization is waiting to see how the Trump administration's move will affect members. She estimated that 25% of the association's members used Huawei or ZTE gear in their networks.

"When something new comes up, we're sent scrambling," Nettles said. "What it's going to mean for us in the long term is difficult to say at best."

Nettles' company is small, with about 40 employees and some 60 cell sites. That's a "drop in the bucket" for big companies such as Ericsson and Nokia, which often don't see a reason to scale down their services for such small accounts, Nettles said.

 

Whereas national carriers operate in more densely populated parts of the region, Pine Belt covers many of the roads farmers regularly travel -- areas overlooked by big providers. Its 4G network offers rural drivers cell service and even provides household internet access in areas without broadband cable.

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

The Federal Communications Commission's Universal Service Fund funnels money to smaller telecom companies -- including members of the Rural Wireless Assn. -- to provide internet services in rural areas.

Since June 2018, a group of rural broadband companies mostly in the Midwest have been fighting an FCC proposal that would ban the use of federal subsidies to purchase Huawei and other Chinese equipment that might pose a national security threat.

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