Rural operators in the United States are among the biggest customers of Huawei and ZTE, and fear the executive order would also require them to rip out existing Chinese-made equipment without compensation. Industry officials are divided on whether the administration could legally compel operators to do that.

While the big U.S. wireless companies have cut ties with Huawei in particular, small rural carriers have relied on Huawei and ZTE switches and other equipment because they tend to be less expensive.

The company is so central to small carriers that William Levy, vice president for sales of Huawei Tech USA, is on the board of directors of the Rural Wireless Association.

The RWA represents carriers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers. It estimates that 25 percent of its members had Huawei or ZTE equipment in their networks, it said in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month.

The RWA is concerned that an executive order could force its members to remove ZTE and Huawei equipment and also bar future purchases, said Caressa Bennet, RWA general counsel.

It would cost $800 million to $1 billion for all RWA members to replace their Huawei and ZTE equipment, Bennet said.

Separately, the FCC in April granted initial approval to a regulation that bars giving federal funding to help pay for telecommunication infrastructure to companies that purchase equipment from firms deemed threats to U.S. national security, which analysts have said is aimed at Huawei and ZTE.

The FCC is also considering whether to require carriers to remove and replace equipment from firms deemed a national security risk.

In March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “hidden ‘back doors’ to our networks in routers, switches – and virtually any other type of telecommunications equipment – can provide an avenue for hostile governments to inject viruses, launch denial-of-service attacks, steal data, and more.”

In the December filing, Pine Belt Communications in Alabama estimated it would cost $7 million to $13 million to replace its Chinese-made equipment, while Sagebrush in Montana said replacement would cost $57 million and take two years.

Sagebrush has noted that Huawei products are significantly cheaper. When looking for bids in 2010 for its network, it found the cost of Ericsson equipment to be nearly four times the cost of Huawei.

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