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Securing our communications networks

The Highland County Press - Staff Photo -
Sen. Deb Fischer

By U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer

Our great state of Nebraska is home to a number of American military assets, including Offutt Air Force Base and nuclear missile silos. We are proud of our role in the national defense — although the sensitive areas in our state can make us a target at times.

Over a decade ago, intelligence agencies began to notice Chinese-made communications equipment multiplying across the rural Midwest. Chinese technology was placed on top of cell towers in Nebraska as well as nearby Colorado and Montana. Curiously, these technologies were clustering near critical military locations.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation looked into this phenomenon, it found that the Chinese company Huawei was regularly selling equipment to rural providers at cheap prices that seemed unprofitable. In these cases, the equipment would be located next door to American military assets.

We know that the Chinese Communist Party intends to exploit these vulnerabilities for all kinds of activities, including espionage. That’s unacceptable, and it’s just one example of the threat Chinese-made equipment in our communications networks poses to national security.

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took the wise step to ban the use of federal funds to expand or maintain networks containing equipment made by Huawei or ZTE, two prominent Chinese telecommunications companies. Since then, the Commission banned all equipment authorizations for several Chinese tech firms that pose threats to national security, blocking their imports and sale.

We also passed a law in Congress approving $1.9 billion to secure our communications infrastructure — to rip out the Chinese network gear and replace it with secure equipment.

It’s been years, but not all of this dangerous Chinese gear has been replaced. Approximately 24,000 pieces of Chinese-made equipment remain in 8,400 different locations across our country. Nearly all of the 85 companies approved by the FCC for removal assistance are still waiting for federal reimbursement money, because they aren’t able to pay to replace the equipment — in compliance with the mandate — without help.

Smaller, regional carriers have told me that this financial uncertainty leaves them with two main options: to go out of business, or to never replace their telecommunications equipment after removing it, and instead reduce the size of their wireless networks. Either option would be devastating for Nebraska communities, especially those in rural areas. We need more, not less, connectivity in our state. And we need more, not fewer, jobs.

I’ve introduced the Defend Our Networks Act to remedy this problem. Protecting our national security is vital, and it’s also vital that we ensure the government’s response to protect our security doesn’t put smaller companies out of business.

The Defend Our Networks Act would allocate $3.08 billion of unobligated COVID-19 emergency relief funds to the rip and replace program. That’s only three percent of the unobligated emergency funds.

I introduced this bill with my Democratic colleague Senator Hickenlooper because securing our communications infrastructure is a national, bipartisan issue. The FCC has a July 15 deadline by which reimbursement requests are due. If Congress doesn’t act quickly to fix this issue before the July deadline, there won’t be enough funds to cover costs. This wouldn’t just affect Nebraska — communities in 49 states, plus U.S. territories, are relying on this program to be fully funded.

Our national defense, and the security of our communications services, is vital. In the Senate, we need to follow through on the reimbursement payments we promised so carriers and the communities they serve aren’t hurt. I’ll keep pushing to pass the Defend Our Networks Act for the sake of Nebraska and the rest of our country.

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