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Security

Rise Broadband vaults 'rip and replace' program's Catch-22

Rise Broadband, the nation's largest independent provider of fixed wireless Internet services in rural areas, said it plans to rip out ZTE's equipment from its network – and will do so with its own cash.

"By making this decision, Rise Broadband is taking the initiative," the company explained in a recent FCC filing, noting that its "reasoned and appropriate decision" should not prevent it from eventually getting a government reimbursement covering the cost of the effort.

A Rise executive declined to discuss the matter with Light Reading beyond the company's FCC filing, including how much money the company is spending on the effort. However, Rise has previously said that it spent "several million dollars" on ZTE equipment in 2015.

While the details remain vague and the issue is decidedly complex, at the heart of Rise Broadband's action is a Catch-22 that pits one government mandate against another, with the company stuck in the middle. And it yet again highlights the increasingly messy, expensive details surrounding the FCC's efforts to completely eradicate Chinese equipment from US wireless networks.

Ripping and replacing
The first and most important factor in Rise Broadband's new decision is the FCC's "rip and replace" program. That effort seeks up to $2 billion from Congress to pay a number of mostly small wireless network operators to strip out their Huawei and ZTE equipment and replace it with equipment from other, unspecified "trusted" suppliers.

The FCC has already issued rules preventing companies involved in the program from purchasing additional equipment from the Chinese vendors, which have been deemed threats to national security.

As Rise explained in its filing, that ruling is running up against a separate FCC mandate, called Part 96, that requires companies operating in the 3.5GHz CBRS band to update their equipment by later this year to make way for new commercial operations in the band. Rise said those two conflicting issues are forcing the company to strip out ZTE's equipment from its network ahead of receiving any "rip and replace" money (Congress has not yet allocated funds to the program).

Cheap and from China
Rise said that it purchased ZTE's LTE equipment in 2015 because of the "components' expected performance, relatively low cost, as well as ZTE's Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) upgrade capability through anticipated software updates." The company said it has deployed ZTE's fixed wireless LTE equipment in 402 different sectors, and roughly half of those are in locations financed by the FCC's Rural Broadband Experiment program meant to deploy telecommunications in rural areas. However, Rise said ZTE "has largely abandoned support for existing equipment" due to the FCC's recent actions, which has forced Rise to meet the FCC's Part 96 CBRS mandate by swapping out ZTE's equipment with equipment from another supplier.

Though Rise is conducting the swap-out ahead of the official start of the FCC's "rip and replace" program, it hopes to obtain money from the program when (and if) Congress decides to fund it.

Rise said it is replacing ZTE's equipment with "a proprietary solution instead of a similar carrier-grade LTE platform," from an unnamed vendor.

'Rip and replace' ties into FCC rural broadband program
Motivation behind the FCC's rip and replace program partly stems from the fact that some companies purchased Huawei and ZTE equipment using FCC money earmarked for funding telecom services in rural areas. That's exactly what Rise was doing with ZTE's equipment under the FCC's Rural Broadband Experiment program.

Other US providers that have equipment from Huawei and ZTE include Viaero, Union Wireless, United TelCom, SI Wireless, Viaero, James Valley Telecommunications (JVT), NE Colorado Cellular and others. Even Northern Michigan University has fessed up to owning Huawei equipment and, as a result, is asking for rip and replace money from the FCC – despite the fact that 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.

To complicate matters, the FCC is also working to put the finishing touches on its recent CBRS spectrum auction, which in part relies on the implementation of the FCC's Part 96 mandate. Rise was among the initial batch of companies that had expressed interest in the FCC's CBRS auction (it had planned to bid under the "Skybeam" entity that traces its ownership to JAB Wireless, which does business under the Rise Broadband name). However, neither Rise, Skybeam nor JAB are listed among the FCC's final list of CBRS bidders.

Rise officials did not answer questions about the company's participation in the CBRS auction, citing FCC rules preventing participants from discussing the event.

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

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