Wireless Providers Serving Rural America Have a Huawei Problem

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From its modest base in Fort Morgan, a city in eastern Colorado, Viaero Wireless has spent decades building a mobile network that serves rural stretches of four states. Now it’s faced with a regulatory order to replace key pieces of its system supplied by Huawei Technologies Co., including antennas on some 1,000 towers. Viaero says the equipment swap—at a cost of more than $400 million—threatens its survival and will force it to buy pricier gear. It’s also unnecessary, according to the company, which says it keeps a close watch over its systems. “I’ve got a dedicated team of veterans,” says Viaero President Frank DiRico, “and if we thought anything wrong was going on, we’d strangle somebody.”

Viaero is among 60 or more telecom operators swept up in a directive by the Federal Communications Commission to remove components produced by Huawei, which the U.S. government alleges could be spying on behalf of Beijing. U.S. officials have long been suspicious of Huawei, encouraging telecom giants such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to avoid using gear from the Shenzhen-based company. But smaller carriers turned to its low-cost, reliable products to help them roll out networks in underserved regions. That became a problem after the Trump administration launched a global campaign to persuade U.S. allies to block Huawei from their 5G mobile networks—part of an intensifying trade and economic rivalry. The effort fixed attention on Huawei equipment in existing U.S. networks.

Huawei has always maintained that it’s independent from the Chinese government and would never conduct espionage, a claim U.S. officials dismiss. Banning suppliers from one country won’t ensure network security, which could be enhanced by strict oversight, says Joy Tan, a senior vice president for Huawei in the U.S. Simply replacing Huawei gear “will reduce the ability of smaller broadband providers to deliver connectivity, costing them billions of dollars to comply, and ultimately hurting Americans,” she wrote in an email.

Security officials and politicians of all stripes are on board with the FCC’s rip-and-replace order, with some particularly concerned about Chinese equipment in networks near military installations. “We see Huawei as a threat, period, to our telecommunications infrastructure,” says John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice. “And when it’s near a military base, it’s a threat to the confidentiality of the military activities on that base.”

While Huawei products are already barred from dedicated government and military networks, officials say security hazards are also created by its equipment’s presence in private networks near armed forces bases. They argue that gear on local networks could intercept signals coming from a base and allow Huawei and the Chinese government to track the personal cellphones of military personnel and their family members. “It’s all about understanding a comprehensive picture of what goes on at a base,” says Rob Spalding, a retired Air Force brigadier general and former member of the National Security Council. “If they are running only on weekdays, and they are all of a sudden going 24/7, that’s an indication something is going on.”

Viaero carries traffic on airwaves above underground missile launch facilities in Nebraska, which are operated by the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo. The carrier dismisses the notion that an equipment supplier could gain a picture of military operations. Data flows displayed on a colorful wall full of big, bright flatscreens at the company’s headquarters are monitored continually. On the rare occasion Huawei is let into the network core—the most sensitive part of any telecom system, with regard to security—technicians make sure the company can reach only its own equipment. “They can’t just haul a lot of data out of the middle of America,” says Arnold Agcaoili, Viaero’s chief technology officer. “We’re watching anything that goes out.”

F.E. Warren hosts a missile wing responsible for a complex of Minuteman missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads that sprawls across 9,600 square miles of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. The missiles are controlled by a command system with a diversified set of fixed and mobile connections, says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “There’s no good data out in public that shows there is a vulnerability” that could allow illicit access to the missiles, he says. “I would be extraordinarily surprised if this isn’t something the managers of the missiles have taken into account.” A spokesman for F.E. Warren declined to discuss telecom security processes. “We maintain a concerned awareness of activities within proximity of our installations and sites,” Second Lieutenant Jonathan Carkhuff said in an email.

The base is also within reach of signals from Union Wireless, a small phone carrier headquartered in Mountain View, Wyo. The company, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, told the FCC last year that the rip-and-replace bill “threatens to decimate” rural networks.

The FCC doesn’t know where all the Huawei gear is located and is asking carriers to disclose their use of the equipment, as well as the costs of the original purchase and of replacement. The telecom operators say the government should reimburse them fully. While that premise has largely been accepted on Capitol Hill, Congress has yet to appropriate money to reimburse the carriers. Rural carriers are trying to win inclusion in legislation responding to the coronavirus-induced shock to the economy.

Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr, who won office on a platform that included better broadband access, acknowledges the tension between security concerns and delivering internet service in remote areas. “How do we make it affordable?” Orr asks. “Making it affordable at times means using Chinese parts.”

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