US lawmakers back $2.5 billion to replace telecom equipment from China's Huawei, ZTE: Sources

Lawmakers will also back US$3.2 billion for an emergency broadband benefit for low-income Americans to increase access to broadband. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US lawmakers will back US$1.9 billion (S$2.53 billion) to fund a programme to remove telecom network equipment that the US government says poses national security risks as part of a US$900 billion Covid-19 relief Bill, two sources briefed on the matter said on Sunday.

Lawmakers will also back US$3.2 billion for an emergency broadband benefit for low-income Americans, senior congressional aides confirmed after Reuters first reported the planned broadband spending.

The Covid-19 relief Bill invests US$7 billion to increase access to broadband, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, adding the low-income programme will "help millions of students, families and unemployed workers afford the broadband they need during the pandemic."

The Federal Communications Commission said in June it had formally designated China's Huawei Technologies Co and ZTE Corp as threats, a declaration that bars US firms from tapping an US$8.3 billion government fund to purchase equipment from the companies.

Earlier this month, the FCC finalised rules that require carriers with ZTE or Huawei equipment to "rip and replace" that equipment but is awaiting funding from Congress.

Huawei said earlier this month it was disappointed in the FCC's decision "to force removal of our products from telecommunications networks. This overreach puts US citizens at risk in the largely underserved rural areas - during a pandemic - when reliable communication is essential."

The Bill "establishes a temporary, emergency broadband benefit program at the FCC to help low-income Americans, including those economically challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic, get connected or remain connected to broadband,"according to a fact sheet seen by Reuters.

The source also said the programme will supply a US$50 monthly subsidy to qualifying households "to help them afford broadband service and an Internet-connected device."

The Bill also expands eligibility for the rip-and-replace reimbursement programme to communications providers with 10 million subscribers or less but prioritises reimbursement for providers with 2 million subscribers or less, the source said, citing a draft fact sheet.

The Bill will include US$285 million for connecting minority communities and will establish an Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

It will also offer funding to "support minority-serving education institutions, including when they partner with minority-owned businesses, to expand broadband capacity and use at the school and in the surrounding community," the fact sheet seen by Reuters said.

It also includes about US$250 million for additional FCC support for telehealth and US$1 billion for a NTIA tribal broadband connectivity grant programme.

There is a separate US$300 million NTIA grant programme to promote broadband expansion to underserved Americans, especially in rural areas, and US$65 million for better broadband maps.

That fully funds the FCC's development of new more accurate broadband availability maps to help the agency better target government funding for broadband deployment.

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