Northern Michigan University currently operates a brand-new LTE network covering thousands of square miles in the state's rural Upper Peninsula, which it uses to beam Internet connections to 15,000 families and students.
The only problem is that China's Huawei – currently deemed a threat to US national security – supplied the equipment for the network.
"NMU must consider the possibility of spending millions of dollars to replace its Huawei equipment in order to continue providing essential broadband services to some of the region's most vulnerable populations," the university wrote to the FCC. "The recent COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant, unplanned expenses, leaving the university with no funding alternatives for this replacement project."
NMU's relationship with Huawei stretches back more than a decade, to when the Chinese vendor was simply another wireless network equipment supplier and not the focal point for US-China geopolitical trade relations as it is today.
"NMU constructed an advanced WiMAX network in 2009 and began providing off-campus, 4G wireless broadband to its students," the university wrote. "The network used Huawei equipment and covered nearly 230 square miles."
NMU explained that the network was so successful it drew recognition from President Obama, as well as demands for improved, expanded service. In 2015, the university selected Huawei for an LTE upgrade due to the vendor's "competitive pricing, reliability and equipment availability."
The network became even more popular amid COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, according to the university, with new customer sign-ups doubling from 200 to 400 a month. "Looking ahead to 2024 ... NMU projects serving 17,000 unserved or underserved households with a grand total of more than 27,000 students and families when factoring in NMU students, faculty and staff and their families," the university wrote.
NMU isn't the only Huawei customer in the US asking for FCC money to build a new network using equipment from other, "trusted" suppliers. United TelCom, SI Wireless, Viaero, James Valley Telecommunications (JVT), NE Colorado Cellular, United Telephone Association, Nemont Telephone Cooperative and Union Telephone Company are among those participating in the FCC's "rip and replace" program – indeed, the price tag for the program recently doubled.
However, NMU is not deemed an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) that can qualify for the FCC's Universal Service Fund (USF) cash, which is how the "rip and replace" program is structured.
Nonetheless, "as the FCC develops a reimbursement program to offset transition costs to new equipment, NMU believes it should be eligible for such funds," NMU wrote, calculating the cost of the effort at $15 million.