FCC Takes Another Step to Secure 5G Networks

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With a 5-0 vote, the FCC yesterday took more steps to protect the communications infrastructure supply chain. The issue is at the heart of so-called “rip and replace,” the effort to find and fund replacement of rural carriers’ untrusted network equipment purchased from Huawei and ZTE. The vote took place during a week when the U.K. reversed an earlier decision and decided to block untrusted Chinese-made gear from its 5G networks.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said all federal agencies should be on the same page “before publishing a list of equipment that could cause concern,” referring to a list the agency will develop and maintain. His colleague, Commissioner Brendan Carr said Huawei’s response to other country’s concerns about having its gear in their networks has been: “why would we risk our reputation by making our products insecure? Why would the Chinese regime risk that?”

Carr said: “These were meant to be rhetorical questions.” But after the Chinese government crackdown in Hong Kong, he emphasized, “they can’t be.”  

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the action yesterday is one of a series of steps the FCC has taken to secure 5G networks. She urged the agency to go further and support Open RAN as part of a comprehensive government 5G strategy. Noting the U.K. has testbeds on the concept and a Japanese company says it’s developed a commercial mobile networking using Open RAN, she said: “The FCC needs to act on this.” To Congress, she said, “We need resources to make this happen.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who’s promoted a “Find it, fund it, fix it” model for “rip and replace,” supported the concept of a comprehensive 5G strategy “to develop and support alternatives that replace existing equipment and position us to better compete in the future.”

Starks said the problem of insecure network gear is worldwide. “Through its “Made in China 2025″ strategy, China artificially lowered their prices, assisted in the research and product development, and undercut international competition. Through this unfair advantage, the equipment produced by these corporations has become pervasive around the world.”

“O-RAN is promising because it enables a single disturbed IT system of interoperable hardware,” said Starks. “This granular approach reduces the barriers to entry for radio network access vendors, particularly small-scale, specialized suppliers, and presents a unique opportunity for American companies.” Starks suggests the FCC investigate requiring carriers to consider O-RAN solutions as they rebuild networks. 

Thursday’s Declaratory Ruling finds that the FCC has already fulfilled one of its obligations under the Secure Networks Act by adopting its November 2019 ban on USF support for equipment and services produced or provided by companies that pose a national security threat. In a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC seeks public comment on implementing various aspects of the Secure Networks Act, including proposals to:

  1. create and maintain the list of covered communications equipment and services required by the statute;
  2. ban the use of federal subsidies, including USF funding, for any communications equipment or services placed on this list;
  3. require all providers of advanced communications services to report on whether they use any covered communications equipment or services; and
  4. prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in the reimbursement program that is required by the statute to remove and replace insecure equipment. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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