Huawei's ban will disrupt rural America's cell coverage, and the new T-Mobile can't save it


What's the Chinese international TV station CGTN doing in rural Montana or Kentucky these days? Why, taking interviews from farmers and businesses that are directly affected by the US trade war with China - explicable - and with the general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association (RWA) - a head-scratcher.

It turns out that mobile networks in rural areas throughout the US are built predominantly on value-for-money Huawei base stations, and the ban on Huawei networking equipment is putting the local service providers in a bind. It would take 3-7 years to replace the network foundations, and the money simply isn't available, too.

Recently, a few senators from both parties have put forth legislation to finance the switch with $700 million, just like the White House earmarked $16 billion to help farmers weather the loss of the Chinese market due to the tariff spat between the two nations. According to Carrie Bennet, the above-mentioned general counsel for the RWA in an interview for NBC:


While the financing is debatable, the path forward may not be, and rural carriers may really be forced to to stop using Huawei-made base stations and even swap existing ones for something from Ericsson, Nokia, or the rest of the European competition in the field, as American companies have little to offer in that industry. Besides more expensive to purchase and maintain, the equipment would require staff retraining.

About a year ago, the Competitive Carriers Association wrote in memo to the FCC that "lower-cost providers will be pushed out of the market, which will reduce overall supply and increase demand for the higher-cost providers," if the administration's requirements to ditch Huawei have to be met. Those higher-cost providers may very well turn out to be none other than T-Mobile and Sprint after their eventual merger. 

To get it approved, the carriers recently pushed a promise to the FCC that they will cover 90% of rural America within six years, and with 5G speeds at that. Given the scope of that effort, and the fact that 5G requires a much denser network of base stations than 4G, the RWA counsel is having none of it: "That they’re going to be able to deliver any of that is so bogus. I don’t know what they’re smoking, but get me some of that."

Gigi Sohn, from the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, and an FCC chairman counselor during the previous White House administration, piled on the senators' legislative effort and on the new T-Mobile's promises further:


According to him, both Sprint and T-Mobile are understandable adamant to push the merger through, so they would say anything to get it approved, including "wildly optimistic promises on build out." "But honestly, who is going to hold them to those promises," he continues. Anything can happen in the six years after the eventual merger, and by then a lot of rural carriers may have given up the ghost if not financed properly for the switch to Ericsson, Nokia, or other base stations. 

In the meantime, residents of rural areas may suffer service interruptions, as well as price increases to recoup the costs. The Rural Wireless Association of America has been "vehemently opposed" to the merger on those grounds for a while now, and the unintended consequences of using Huawei as a pawn in the larger trade war with China is doing even less to change their minds.

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9 Comments

1. Plutonium239

Posts: 1249; Member since: Mar 17, 2015

I used to work on cellphone tower sites as a subcontractor for AT&T. If you are simply replacing the network equipment, with a site with an indoor shelter for the equipment it should take between one and two days(per site). With an outdoor site, depending on the exact scope of the work, it should take less than 4 days. This is for the equipment on the ground. As far as the antennas go, they should take between one and three days.

6. Reluctant_Human

Posts: 913; Member since: Jun 28, 2012

For one site you are absolutely correct. However, you are seriously underestimating how long it takes for one region. You have to coordinate the cell techs and installers as well as the OT if you want to get it done fast. You need RF to plan out the rollout since all antennas are different. Not including the cost and time of replacing the switch equipment especially if they´re not set fot IOT. Then there´s troubleshooting and testing (which in worst cases adds tons of time). Plus you need real estate in the mix for new sites in the case of 5G or dealing with permits and annoying land owners for approval. It is a HUGE and costly undertaking if you ever did a big rollout for 4G and 5G you know exaclty what I´m talking about.

2. Kohai

Posts: 51; Member since: Jun 04, 2010

I´m sure you are aware that a cell network goes far beyond than changing the antennas and site equipment. And also manufacturing and importing all these hardware is not going to be as fast as you might require to replace all tower HW in those timings. Also another problem might arise if Nokia or Ericsson HW is made in China...

7. mootu

Posts: 1541; Member since: Mar 16, 2017

Both Nokia and Ericsson manufacture most of thier equipment in China. Also both companys have members of thier boards who are members of the CCP. https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/top-5g-suppliers-linked-to-china-s-communist-party-20180812-p4zwzt.html So at the end of the day under Trumps security directive neither company can deploy 5G networks in the US as they come under the same security restrictions that Huawei does.

8. Dadler22

Posts: 243; Member since: Dec 11, 2008

Almost all phones are made in china, if china wanted to install spyware doing it during manufacturing might be an answer. I do genuinely believe that Huawei poses no threat, its all political fire for this trade war.

3. Doakie

Posts: 2478; Member since: May 06, 2009

I think we should just drop the trade war and give in to the communist Chinese Govt, government controlled economy sounds like a utopia. Everyone gets free stuff evenly after they take all your stuff. Why fight for a balanced economy without communist party control? Freedom is it's own form of oppression. /S

4. jarome

Posts: 23; Member since: Jul 05, 2012

T-Mobile has always kept its promises. Why say they will not with no basis of proof?

5. kennybenny

Posts: 226; Member since: Apr 10, 2017

I remember when I was traveling in the US by camper van a few years ago, Cricket's (AT&T) service was worse than any of the Canadian rural services I experienced so far. In Canada, I would have 3-5 bars of signal everywhere even in the middle of nowhere. Compared to Cricket, I'd get 1-2 bars and sometimes no service in rural areas. This was on the 3G HSPA network as the BLU phone I had only supported 3G. I don't know what it is now, but it seems like rural areas in America have worse service.

9. Dadler22

Posts: 243; Member since: Dec 11, 2008

I dont know much about Blu phone bands, but it could be that you didnt have some of the low frequency bands that the US carriers use?

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