U.S. regional and rural wireless carriers are in a quandary. Several such carriers already have installed in their networks, equipment from Chinese manufacturers, namely Huawei and ZTE. The Federal government deemed that Huawei and ZTE equipment in U.S. wireless networks poses a national security risk. With the passage of the ‘Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019’ (STCNA19), these carriers must now remove this equipment from their networks and replace it with equipment from approved vendors. The affected carriers will comply with the new law but where they do it, how they do it, in what timeframe and at what cost all remain to be determined.
STCNA19 creates a fund to help smaller carriers pay for the removal and replacement of Federal Communications Commission (FCC)-defined ‘covered’ equipment, imposes a 1-year replacement timeline with extension waivers, and creates a mechanism to access funds progressively throughout the process. The FCC has requested $2 billion from Congress for the fund.
For its part, Huawei maintains its stance. Don Morrissey, Huawei USA VP-Congressional, State and Local Government Affairs states: “Huawei’s priority has always been to support its customers, especially the American families and businesses that rely so heavily on the connectivity it provides to rural areas of the U.S. – this has held true since before the passing of the [STCNA19], and it still stands. Through various filings with the FCC, both Huawei and its customers have separately emphasized the negative effects this and the corresponding legislation could have on the U.S. rural broadband industry. This includes the possibility of putting frontier connectivity providers out of business entirely, without adding security measures to the networks.”
Huawei and ZTE have been operating in the U.S since the mid-2000s. The companies failed to break into the national carriers like AT&T but found a receptive market among smaller regional and rural wireless carriers, wireless internet service providers (WISPs) and cable companies, many of whom are members of Competitive Carriers Association (CCA). These carriers now face the daunting task of replacing the Huawei and ZTE equipment embedded in their network infrastructure while keeping their mobile and fixed wireless services on the air for customers in small towns and rural communities that otherwise have no wireless connectivity.
“This has never been done before,” says CCA President/CEO Steve Berry. He counts as candidates around a dozen CCA member companies operating several thousand cell sites and raises a flag, “Directives are being issued with no idea of the complexity. In some cases, our members must replace everything from antennas and remote radio heads (RRHs) down to baseband units (BBUs) and the core without interrupting service. It’s really ‘replace, then rip’ rather than ‘rip and replace’ that is often bandied about inside the Beltway.” Berry points out that every network is unique, no one solution fits all. In some cases, existing towers may not be able to support the added load during the transition. The carrier either must build new towers or suspend service while swapping equipment on existing towers.
Testifying before Congress, Berry cited factors that impact the ‘replace, then rip’ process: available spectrum, adequate equipment supply, limited construction windows in certain harsh geographic areas, permitting processes, new equipment configuration and testing, and the acute shortage of skilled technicians to perform the work. He asked for considerations to enforcing the Act: prioritization – replace core network and routing elements first, and then radio and edge network elements, prioritizing available resources to the highest potential threats; flexibility – small carriers unable to complete major changes to their networks in compressed timeframes must remain eligible for financial support; and, neutrality – carriers, not the Government, should choose the technology that works best for them including network virtualization and Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) with a path to 5G.
Vendors are waiting to fill the Huawei/ZTE void. Certainly, Tier 1 suppliers Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung are candidates. Smaller, agile wireless equipment manufacturers are in play as well. Companies such as Airspan, Altiostar, Athonet, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Tecore Networks, JMA Wireless and Cambium Networks offer RAN and CORE elements that meet a wide range of applications in licensed and unlicensed bands, and network virtualization.
By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor