Last July, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally barred Chinese telecom Huawei as a supplier, it simultaneously dismissed the world’s largest communications equipment maker and freed up U.S. providers to remove and replace suspect installations.
However, little has happened since President Trump signed into law the Secure and Trusted Communications Act, which not only bans U.S. companies from using federal funds to purchase equipment from Huawei (and ZTE), it also establishes a program to reimburse small communications providers for upgrading to trusted products.
Now, months later, bipartisan leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and ranking member Greg Walden (R-OR), are pushing the FCC to fully fund the $1 billion program and take other substantive steps to begin the replacement process.
"This funding is critical because some small and rural communications providers would not otherwise be able to afford these upgrades,” Pallone and Walden wrote in a letter to FCC chairman Ajit Pai. “Among the responsibilities entrusted to the FCC to carry out the Program is the development of a list of suggested replacements for suspect equipment, including physical and virtual communications equipment, application and management software, and services.”
Carriers are moving ahead to "remove their suspect equipment and need guidance," the lawmakers wrote, offering two moves the FCC should immediately make:
- Develop and release the list of eligible replacement equipment, software and services.
- Reassure companies that they will not jeopardize their eligibility for reimbursement under the program just because replacement equipment purchases were made before the program is funded, assuming other eligibility criteria are met.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having reliable and secure communications services, and companies eligible for reimbursement under the program will have to engage in very careful and intentional planning to replace suspect equipment while at the same time not disrupting its service," the Congressional members said. “We urge you to take these specific, non controversial actions as quickly as possible so these important efforts to secure our communications networks are not delayed.”
An FCC spokesperson told The Hill that Pai "strongly agrees" with the "goal of ensuring that our nation's communications networks are secure." The FCC will vote in January 2020 on implementing the reimbursement program, the spokesperson said.
Pallone and Walden have also sponsored new House approved legislation to designate $750 million to build out 5G networks. The stakes are high with spending on 5G-related network equipment expected to hit $26 billion in 2022, according to researcher IDC’s figures.