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US Operator Viaero Apparently Using More Huawei Equipment

Mike Dano
11/1/2019

Viaero -- a US wireless network operator across rural parts of Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas -- is requesting FCC permission to test equipment from Huawei working in the 2.5GHz band.

While the request is relatively routine, the company's plan to use equipment from China's Huawei is not. Huawei sits at the center of an international geopolitical firestorm as US officials work to block the company from the US market amid a contentious US-China trade war.

In the latest development surrounding Huawei, the FCC just last week proposed paying operators including Viaero to physically rip out existing Huawei equipment from their networks and replace it with equipment from a "trusted" vendor.

It's unclear when Viaero acquired the Huawei equipment it is planning to use in its new tests.

Deafening silence
Viaero doesn't appear to have any interest in discussing any of this. The company has not responded to repeated interview requests from Light Reading, including ones related to its latest use of Huawei's equipment.

However, in an FCC filing last year, the company said that Huawei supplies roughly 80% of the equipment in its network. "Viaero chose Huawei because it was the most cost-effective option and the most reliable product and [provides] excellent customer service," wrote Viaero CEO Frank DiRico. "Before contracting with Huawei, Viaero worked with a more expensive vendor whose product never was able to successfully deploy in our markets. Huawei's services have been much better, which has resulted in better network performance and less downtime."

Importantly, DiRico argued that any effort to replace Huawei's equipment in its network would substantially disrupt Viaero's ability to provide services to its 110,000 customers.

"We estimate that the purchase price of replacement equipment would be in excess of $300 million including approximately $75 million for to replace the core, and an additional $60 million in installation costs," DiRico wrote. "During installation of the new equipment, Viaero will have to forego as much as $50 million in roaming fees from several national carriers. Viaero also would have to find a new service provider and initial estimates are approximately $4 million more annually than we currently pay. In total, the proposed rule would result in $410 million in direct, "rip and replace" costs, and $4 million in additional annual servicing costs, which does not take into account the likely higher costs of any materials, upgrades and lost time from installing inferior equipment and less responsive customer service from the other equipment manufacturers."

DiRico argued as early as last year that Viaero has already suffered from the FCC's moves against Huawei and other Chinese equipment suppliers. "The uncertainty introduced by the FCC's proposed rule [to block purchases of Huawei equipment] and other possible restrictions on using Huawei and ZTE equipment and services has... forced Viaero to reduce its capital investment in network capacity upgrades and expansion," he wrote.

Viaero is not alone. The operator is one of a number of smaller wireless network providers across the US that has acknowledged purchasing equipment from Huawei. United TelCom, SI Wireless, James Valley Telecommunications (JVT), NE Colorado Cellular, United Telephone Association, Nemont Telephone Cooperative and Union Telephone Company have also admitted to doing so. Indeed, the Rural Wireless Association estimated late last year that 25% of its members use equipment from a Chinese vendor.

For its part, the FCC plans to vote next month on a proposal that would not only prevent some US telecom companies from using equipment from Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE in the future, but would also pay companies like Viaero to replace their existing network equipment provided by Huawei and ZTE with equipment from other, government-trusted vendors. The agency laid out its case against the Chinese vendors across four pages of a 96-page filing on the issue, arguing such equipment could be used for Chinese espionage. Huawei and ZTE have vehemently disagreed with that.

Moving forward on fixed wireless
As for Viaero's latest efforts, the company is asking the FCC for permission to test what appears to be a fixed wireless LTE service using Huawei's broadcast antennas and in-home receivers. Viaero offers mobile phone service in rural areas as well as fixed wireless Internet services to an estimated 442,000 people, according to BroadbandNow.

"Applicant seeks... authority to undertake testing in the 2.5GHz band in order to determine the propagation characteristics and real-world throughput of operations in this band," the company wrote in its request to the FCC.

That the company is looking to test fixed wireless in 2.5GHz spectrum makes sense considering the FCC voted to release that spectrum band mostly in rural areas for commercial operations. Internet providers in rural areas are increasingly turning to fixed wireless technologies because they are much cheaper to deploy than wired networks.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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