A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers have introduced legislation to provide $700 million in grants to help U.S. telecommunications providers with the cost of removing Huawei equipment from their networks. It comes following concerns the equipment could be used to spy on Americans, allegations the company said are baseless. But small U.S. wireless providers are concerned about the negative impact on their regions and said the move to replace their networks would be both costly and take years. CGTN’s Dan Williams reports.
In the northeastern corner of the U.S. state of Montana just a few kilometers south of the Canadian border, lies the quiet town of Scobey.
According to a recent survey, Scobey is among the top three hardest to reach small towns in America.
But the region’s wireless provider, along with many others across rural America, has found itself at odds with U.S authorities.
Nemont Telephone Cooperative relies on Huawei equipment. The Trump administration and the Federal Communications Commission argues that is a security risk and want it removed.
“Nobody in their right mind would shut down a network and shut down public safety,” Mike Gilgore, CEO of Nemont Telephone Cooperative, said.
“You are doing this on an operational network. So, sometimes I equate it to flying in a jet with two engines. And you want to replace one of the engines at 30,000 feet. Probably not a good idea.”
The main push behind the move is the allegation that the equipment could be used as a backdoor for spying.
Kilgore said, in his experience, that threat is over-hyped.
“In the United States, we have a constitution. We are innocent until proven guilty and all of that right, so let’s find the guilt. But that sort of guilt is not real apparent to the operators who are using it today?” Kilgore said.
Although Scobey is home to some stunning scenery, it’s not a lucrative region for cellphone networks to operate, with just twenty thousand people living in an area of around 50,000 square kilometers.
Kevin Rasmussen has farmed here for 28 years.
A nearby communications tower, allows him to keep up to date with the latest planting data as well as vital weather reports.
But more importantly, if the network is shut down, even temporarily, he is concerned about the safety risks.
“I’ve had friends who have had problems before and thank god they had their phone with them, so they could make that phone call,” Kevin Rasmussen said.
“The other thing we talk about in this community, we’ve had some really bad fires in the past, even a couple this year. Without that cell service, it wouldn’t have been taken care of so quickly.”
The general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association Carrie Bennet said ripping and replacing the network would be costly and would take years.
“The money is absolutely not available, make no qualms about this. Our members are relying on Universal Service Funds as it is. We’ve estimated in our filing with the federal communications that it could be anywhere from 3-7 years to replace the networks.”
Back in Scobey, Mike Kilgore hopes it doesn’t come to that.
Given some of his customers rely on older cellular technology that is not easy to replace.
Huge swathes of rural America will be watching developments closely.