Huawei rip & replace remains priority amid pandemic

Two weeks ago, Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) President and CEO Steve Berry was testifying before a U.S. Senate committee on 5G supply chain security and how CCA members need funds to “replace, then rip” as opposed to “rip and replace.” This week, he’s still talking about CCA members’ requirements for that program—but now they’re grappling with seemingly far greater problems from the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not on the backburner,” Berry told FierceWireless of the program underway to remove gear from Huawei and ZTE in regional networks across the country. However, now smaller rural carriers are increasingly having to figure out how they’re going to meet federal expectations for service levels when they need to protect their own installers and service people who are on the front lines. “It’s tough out there just meeting day-to-day activities.”   

As of Monday, 185 companies signed onto the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Keep Americans Connected pledge, with the likes of C Spire, Cellcom and Appalachian Wireless among them. Signatories of the pledge agree not to terminate service to any residential or small business customers due to their inability to pay. They will also open Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them and waive late fees as the nation grapples with the pandemic.

The CCA is composed of nearly 100 carrier members, ranging from small, rural providers with fewer than 5,000 customers to regional and larger carriers, as well as vendors and suppliers. Last week, it was forced to cancel its 2020 Mobile Carriers Show that was set for March 30-April 1 in Dallas.

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Berry said he heard from at least one CEO this week whose internal policy is to let employees decide for themselves if they feel comfortable traveling and making a house call or working in customer relations or at a retail store. But crews still need to be there to make sure everything is working as promised and customers are getting connected, and managers are concerned about how to protect installers or service people when they’re on the job and interfacing with other contractors.

Sometimes permits are needed to do some of the work, yet the traditional government agencies that grant them are closed. Do they proceed with the work or wait around for a signature? Those are some of the issues on CCA members’ minds.

More than 1 network

As for “replace, then rip,” Berry is referring to the fact that the carriers that are replacing gear from Huawei and ZTE must build a separate, standalone network alongside their existing networks before they can shut the old one down. That’s a significant challenge for carriers, and each network is unique.

Some of the equipment due to be replaced uses outdated 3G technology that’s no longer manufactured or supported by the vendors, and they’re looking at deploying 4G LTE and/or potentially equipment that supports 4G with a path to 5G. In some cases, the carrier may be using LTE for data but has a 3G voice channel, and now they need to go with a VoLTE component. “You have to restructure and retune the entire network,” Berry said, and nothing quite like this has been mandated by the federal government before.

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As the coronavirus started taking hold, some affected CCA members were getting bids from the likes of Ericsson and Nokia, as well as small open RAN vendors like Airspan, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless. The idea is to come up with a plan for replacing the banned gear before the actual removal of it happens.  

However, Viaero Wireless, for one, told the FCC (PDF) earlier this month that it reached out to three major vendors to discuss the costs of replacing all of the covered equipment in its network. Quotes received to date have so far proven to be higher than initial estimates, and one vendor was not able to offer a full end-to-end solution.

The company spelled out a complex series of steps it’s taking, but vendors haven’t made it clear they'll be able to deliver the turnkey solution it needs within imposed timelines.

For the industry at large, the pandemic is adding to the challenges. “It’s sort of chaos,” Berry acknowledged. Everybody wants unlimited access, yet customer plans are set up a certain way—for example people on postpaid plans receive a notice when they’re close to reaching their limit, but now those plans, which tend to be automated, may need to be reset. 

“This is a massive undertaking, and that’s why I think we’re going to have to have a lot more understanding and cooperation from our regulatory agencies if we’re going to respond to the pandemic and also do what everyone else has been doing,” which is to get ready to modify their networks, he said.

In-person meetings that were to be held with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Homeland Security and FCC are now moving to conference calls, but replacing the network equipment remains a priority, he said. Requests for extensions will be submitted where deadlines are involved, and they'll continue to look for ways to handle each carrier’s special circumstances.

“Every network is unique and they have different components,” he said. Some networks use Huawei components and a diversified core, while others use a Huawei RAN, for example. “There’s not one template. There’s not one solution that will work for everyone,” requiring a customized game plan for each carrier.