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Telecom Companies Still Await Details After 2019 Ban Of Some Chinese Equipment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been nearly two years since the Trump administration told U.S. telecom providers using certain Chinese equipment that they would have to rip it out and replace it. The administration cited national security concerns as the reason for the overhaul, but it still has not happened. Providers, mostly small rural companies, are still waiting for details on what exactly they have to do and for the money to do it. Montana Public Radio's Megan Myscofski reports.

MEGAN MYSCOFSKI, BYLINE: Craig Gates is the CEO of Triangle Telephone Cooperative, which serves about 20,000 customers in rural central Montana. It's expensive to provide Internet and cell coverage out here, where customers are spread out and big companies tend to stay away. The equipment in his central office runs Chinese software and leads to towers with Chinese equipment.

CRAIG GATES: It just looks like a bunch of stacked computers, only different sizes and different designs on the front. But that's what it is.

MYSCOFSKI: In 2011, TTC was among dozens of rural providers across the country that bought from Huawei, a Chinese company. He says some of it cost as little as half of what the competition offered.

GATES: And actually, the functionality's been very good. I mean, we can't complain about the reliability.

MYSCOFSKI: But suspicion has grown that Chinese companies like Huawei could use their technology to gather intelligence on Americans. Jim Lewis, director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., says the equipment is definitely a threat. He says the average person probably has nothing to worry about, but a farm or a business might. That's because the way countries spy has changed.

JIM LEWIS: It's not James Bond. I'm sorry. It's more like big data - data analytics.

MYSCOFSKI: A 2019 executive order from President Trump banned some Chinese telecom equipment. With bipartisan support, Congress then passed a law requiring providers to, quote, "rip and replace" their Chinese equipment and denying them some federal aid until they do. In December, Congress appropriated $1.9 billion to help companies replace their technology, but that didn't fix the problem. About 50 providers across the country are still waiting for money and guidance on what exactly to rip out and what to replace it with. The FCC says it will finish laying out the rules at a meeting later this month. Telecom companies will then have a year to replace it.

TIM DONOVAN: One year is a fast timeline for this.

MYSCOFSKI: Tim Donovan is the senior vice president of legislative affairs for the Competitive Carriers Association, which lobbies Congress for some wireless carriers.

DONOVAN: Especially in places where there are short build windows. You only have a small set time of the year where you can get on top of a mountain.

MYSCOFSKI: He says that even if extensions are available for the providers, it might not be enough. And the required permits will likely slow them down, too. Carriers are already competing with each other for labor and with other providers as they put in new 5G equipment.

DONOVAN: They're at a disadvantage against other carriers that are already moving forward and don't have to worry about rebuilding their network while maintaining connectivity for their customers.

MYSCOFSKI: Craig Gates with Triangle Telephone in Montana says that's on top of the work they've already done to prepare for the changes.

GATES: We've spent a lot of time, a lot of labor to make sure that what we're doing is going to come off without a hitch once we get the go-ahead.

MYSCOFSKI: For NPR News, I'm Megan Myscofski. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.