Over the weekend, Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the US reached consensus on a new $900bn coronavirus stimulus bill.
In addition to $600 direct payments to individuals, support for small businesses, and enhanced unemployment insurance, the package includes $1.9bn earmarked to support rural carriers in removing equipment made by ZTE and Huawei.
This funding is the latest in a series of measures designed to wean rural carriers off so-called "high-risk" kit. In November 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally prohibited carriers from using federal subsidies to acquire new gear from ZTE and Huawei. This was codified in law in February with the passage of HR 4998 – better known as the "Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act of 2019" – which also allocated $1bn to rip-and-replace efforts.
The full wording of the stimulus bill has not yet been published. As a result, it's not currently clear how the funds will be administered, although it's almost certain the FCC will lead the effort. The US telecoms regulator is separately responsible for administering subsidies for smaller rural carriers, doling out cash from a nearly $9bn pot called the Universal Service Fund.
News of this funding will be welcomed by the myriad smaller wireless carriers in the US, many of whom have fewer than 100,000 subscribers, and boast quaint names like Pine Belt Communications and Panhandle Telephone Cooperative. These small networks will struggle to shoulder the cost of excising network gear, and have repeatedly complained about delays in funding from both the FCC and Congress.
In October, the Rural Wireless Association (RWA), an industry body that represents rural carriers, issued a searing statement condemning Congress's failure to provide the funds outlined in HR 4998. It also demanded the FCC provide clarity about when rip-and-replace funding would start trickling down to networks.
"The delay in funding from Congress and adoption of final rules by the FCC is causing massive uncertainty among small rural carriers who deployed Huawei or ZTE equipment," wrote Carri Bennet, general counsel at the RWA.
It's believed the funding outlined in this package will be available to carriers with fewer than 10 million subscribers, but will prioritise those with 2 million subscribers or less, according to Reuters.
The second stimulus bill, which follows the previous $2.2 trillion CARES Act package, has not yet been voted on by either house, and will require the signature of President Trump before it becomes law. In order to ensure a continuity of benefits, lawmakers will need to approve the bill before 26 December, when key provisions of the CARES Act expire.
In addition to the aforementioned $1.9bn, the package also includes a further $3.2bn to fund broadband access for low-income individuals and families, which includes a $50 monthly subsidy to cover the cost of an internet subscription and device. ®