Many remote parts of America can now get decent high-speed internet connections. But that progress over the last decade is now threatened.
The Federal Communications Commission is moving ahead with plans to stop telecommunication companies from buying equipment from foreign companies it considers a security threat. This move has Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE in the crosshairs, as telecoms would have to stop buying their equipment — or even rip it out — if the current proposal is approved.
Christopher Mitchell, who monitors community broadband at the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said that Huawei, in particular, has become a key provider in rural areas for a couple of reasons. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Christopher Mitchell: Huawei started coming across my radar when they started making really low bids to provide gear to the rural wireless providers. It seemed like they were coming in with very low prices in order to try to buy market share. At that time, it seems like it was a pretty good deal for the rural operators to take that gear. It was good gear that allowed them to push their business plans out further. Now there’s national security concerns, and what started off as a good idea, unfortunately, now seems to have some significant problems in retrospect.
Jack Stewart: I feel like if I was reliant on this rural broadband, and I was using it to do my online banking and email with people, perhaps I wouldn’t be particularly worried that what I was doing was a national security threat or that anybody could get useful information from that. Is it really a credible threat for these relatively remote places?
Mitchell: From a security perspective, the security professionals think in terms of an attack surface, and you want to minimize the attack surface, which is to say, you want to give an opponent as few opportunities as possible to get in. One of the things that we’ve seen with computers and telecommunications is that if you allow an opponent into your network, it’s quite amazing how far they can go within that. They may start by penetrating and getting a little bit of information in a rural network in Montana. They may find ways of leveraging that to go quite far and actually threaten national security in some ways. I think that’s an experiment that we don’t want to run.
Stewart: One of the proposals now is basically to rip out a lot of this equipment. Do you think that makes sense to go that far?
Mitchell: I think it does make sense. This is gear that can last from three to five years. While different parts of the network may present different security threats, there’s certainly aspects that it may be worth replacing early. Not only that, [but] we’re seeing a lot of the networks will be upgraded over time to take advantage of newer wireless technologies anyway. In some ways, it’s an opportunity for some. I certainly think that there’s a real threat if we’re expecting these rural providers that operate on very thin margins, if we’re going to force them to bear the cost of ripping that out, then I think that’s the mistake. But ripping it out to me seems reasonable in a number of cases.
Stewart: Ultimately, what will this mean for consumers that rely on some of this telecommunications in these more rural areas? Will it take longer to get the internet to them or telecommunications in general, or will they potentially lose service?
Mitchell: In rural areas, where we’re seeing this gear being used, effectively, the Chinese had been subsidizing rural deployment in the United States because they were charging such low rates for the gear, it allowed the rural wireless providers to get out there and to go further than they otherwise would be able to. If we don’t do anything to pick up that slack, then we will see broadband expanded more slowly across rural areas. This would also be an opportunity to revisit our programs to make sure that we’re investing sufficiently in rural broadband from the American government and not just taking advantage of Chinese trade policy.
Stewart: Some people would say that Huawei and other Chinese companies are just being unfairly targeted here.
Mitchell: There’s been allegations and we’ve certainly seen evidence that there’s equipment made in the United States that has had back doors to help governments get access to this information. I do think that it is not the same thing. I think that China presents a unique threat to open societies. While I don’t condone the United States putting back doors into this telecommunications equipment, I don’t view it at the same level of threat, and I think that Huawei is a pretty unique threat to open society around the globe.
Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart
The Washington Post has a great piece that gives the color of how smaller telecoms providers have helped fill the gaps left by the big companies, and how those firms relied on affordable Huawei technology to do it.
The Los Angeles Times adds, “In swaths of rural America, along roads where there are just a few farms or homes within a mile-long stretch, customers are so few that the likes of AT&T and T-Mobile don’t bother to build cell towers for coverage.”
And for some numbers, check out the The Pew Research Center’s report, which says two-thirds of rural Americans have home broadband, up from only one-third a decade previously. And is that progress that we can really afford to see go backward?