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FCC starts probing effects of semiconductor drought on the US telecoms supply chain

If only there was a business to consult about chip shortages? Ah, that's right. Huawei, awks

America's communications watchdog has issued a public request for comments from telco providers and suppliers to see how they're faring amid the ongoing chip crunch.

Operated by the FCC's Wireless Communications Bureau division, the consultation [PDF] aims to gauge the health of the telecoms semiconductor supply chain, with a focus on lead times and prices across multiple technologies. It expressed an interest in seeing whether industry leaders think semiconductor suppliers could meet ongoing demand beyond the current crisis.

The scope of the consultation has proven broad, with responses welcomed from those dealing with infrastructure (RANs, satellites, and so on), as well as makers of consumer devices and products that sit somewhere in between, like Wi-Fi routers and connected devices.

On the consumer front, the FCC was curious about the societal impact of the semiconductor shortage on "communities of colour, economically distressed areas, and small businesses," as well as how it has affected the parts of ordinary life that have shifted online during the pandemic, such as education and healthcare.

The industry was asked about how it felt the commission could mitigate the situation, and how it could prevent similar shortfalls in the future.

The shortfall has not affected all telecoms players equally. Although T-Mobile US and AT&T haven't reported issues in acquiring networking gear or consumer devices, others have been less lucky, with Qualcomm and optical networking outfit Infinera they've lost sales due to the supply chain.

These woes were caused by a perfect storm of surging demand in a pandemic when capacity was already pretty much at its limit. First, lower-end parts, such as microcontrollers and displays, were difficult to source. Then the need for higher-end chips soared, particularly for devices like PCs and servers. Some suppliers were hoarding parts amid the trade spat between Washington DC and Beijing. Further demand came at the end of the year when renewed consumer confidence spurred an increase in car sales. When automakers tried to restart their assembly lines, paused along with their component orders when the coronavirus outbreak took hold, they found they were unable to obtain the electronics they needed.

On the production front, freak events including Texas's statewide power outages earlier this year and a fire at one of Renesas's main foundry facilities didn't help. Some packaging materials and other sub-components have been hard to source. It's a real mix of complications and holdups.

In a statement, FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the commission was looking to develop a "more secure, resilient, and next-generation supply chain."

"The communications sector is one of the fastest growing segments of the semiconductor industry. These tiny pieces of technology are the basic building blocks of modern communications — including 5G, Wi-Fi, satellites, and more. That is why we are seeking to better understand the current shortage, its consequences for the communications sector, and steps we can take to ensure that FCC priorities and initiatives remain on track."

There's a hint of irony here. Last year, the UK government booted Huawei from the nation's 5G network, in part due to its inability to source new semiconductors. This situation was prompted by the Trump administration's decision to impose crushing sanctions against the tech giant, which prohibited firms like TSMC and Samsung from doing business with it unless they had obtained an export licence.

And now, even if the circumstances are different, many of the key players in the US telecoms market face being in a similar boat, even if only temporarily. ®

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