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The Defend Our Networks Act, which aims to help rural operators replace equipment from Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE, was introduced late last week by senators John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Deb Fischer (R-NE).

The bipartisan bill would reallocate about 3% of unobligated COVID-19 funding to the FCC’s Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program. The program — more often referred to as the Rip and Replace Program — is aimed at smaller and rural operators. It was created as part of a broader law in 2020.

“We can’t let the Chinese government be embedded in our critical telecommunications networks,” Hickenlooper said in a press release. “We’ve banned their equipment. Now we need to replace what’s already there.”

The Defend Our Networks Act, he said, will protect rural wireless networks by “ripping out risky equipment.”

The FCC prohibits the purchase of equipment from the two vendors, which have been deemed security risks. The FCC doesn’t allow Universal Service funds to be used to expand or maintain networks in which such equipment is deployed.

The commission supported the move in a statement attributed to chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “We appreciate Congress’ continued efforts to support the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program, and I thank Senators Hickenlooper and Fischer for their leadership and continued advocacy,” the statement reads.

“We have an obligation to help ensure the safety of our Nation’s communications networks. This responsibility never ends because the threats to network security are always evolving, and why we must do all we can to fully fund the replacement of insecure equipment throughout the country.”

The need to increase funding for the rip and replace program has been an issue for a long time. In February 2022, the FCC told Congress that requests for about $5.6 billion had been received. The problem was that less than $1.9 billion had been allocated for that purpose in the  Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

In July, the FCC approved rip and replace funding for more than 80 small carriers and others. The FCC said at the time that the funding would not cover the full replacement cost. Even though larger carriers had been removed from the pool, smaller carriers – those with fewer than two million customers – had submitted more than $4.6 billion in cost estimates that were considered “reasonable and supported.”

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