Experts within the U.S. government, the private sector, and academia openly state China’s government is a real and present threat to the American way of life. Its Communist leaders have made provocative foreign policy moves and maintained the legal right to manipulate technology for its own insidious purposes. Look no further than the recent Chinese government “weather” balloon that traveled directly across our entire homeland and had to be shot down by a U.S. fighter jet. Republicans and Democrats alike are furious that the balloon could collect and possibly transmit to China secret information on sensitive American military installations and who knows what else. They should be apoplectic about the Chinese equipment in our wireless networks!
Those concerns over the balloon are nearly identical to those that led Congress to identify the threat of Chinese-supplied wireless network equipment in the past. In that case, certain components made, supplied, and often installed by Chinese companies within certain U.S. wireless provider networks – mostly in rural areas and often near military bases – were deemed a threat to national security given the potential to be used to reveal sensitive information on U.S. government activities and spy on the American people. Specifically, the networks–operating unbeknownst to its U.S. wireless providers–could reap important information, especially from strategic locations, for transfer back to mainland China. In fact, it is possible this equipment would be used in tandem with other technologies, such as the nefarious spy balloon, to function as a transport mechanism for data to reach its intended destination.
Appropriately, Congress enacted the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act in 2019 to set forth a process for extracting a broad array of communications equipment, namely that by Huawei and ZTE, from the networks of select U.S. wireless companies. Commonly referred to as “Rip and Replace,” the program was established to make sure that providers with this equipment could make the changes demanded by the government. Since enactment, however, Congress has only appropriated less than forty percent of the overall expected costs, ignoring more than $3 billion in legitimate and verified provider expenses. In other words, providers can receive just a fraction of the promised funding but need to complete the whole project. These small providers who work to expand internet access in rural America are paralyzed. Most of those carriers do not have the financial ability to self-fund the rip-and-replace project. And while they wait for the funding, they can’t upgrade the service of their networks.
On the outside of the federal government, the general public cannot see the puts and pulls of which spending bill or funding structure makes the most sense to fund Rip and Replace. Some program supporters would like to use a portion of revenues from future spectrum auctions as a funding stream; others believe that general appropriations would work best; and there are other possibilities likely to be considered. In all reality, that is best left for current policymakers to decide. The key is that it be a high enough priority to be solved quickly and successfully. For decades, policymakers rightly have railed against federal bureaucrats and Congress, itself, for imposing new dictates on businesses without enacting the corresponding funding to meet the new burdens. Unfunded government mandates wreak havoc on American businesses trying to meet consumer demand and survive the competing pressures of today’s marketplace. Despite the outrage, this is exactly the situation faced by many small and medium-sized American wireless providers. While wireless providers have done their part to implement mandates that they remove wireless network equipment deemed a U.S. national security danger, Congress has failed in its commitment to adequately compensate providers for removing and replacing the troubled equipment. Unless rectified by new congressional funding, America’s wireless providers are being pushed to the edge of financial ruin, or possibly worse, remain vulnerable to attack.
After identifying a very real national security threat from Chinese wireless equipment, Congress has the obligation to properly fund the unfunded mandate caused by the Rip and Replace program. To do any less would leave the American public and our strategic defenses effectively exposed to hundreds of terrestrial wireless Chinese balloons.