Is Chinese Telecom Gear Near U.S. Military Bases Concerning?

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Chinese telecom Huawei technology and equipment is used by many small, rural wireless carriers because of its low price. There’s concern from U.S. security officials, that situation could potentially endanger sensitive military sites.

Federal dollars used to subsidize those carriers, stem from the Universal Services Fund, which helps fund wireless and broadband connectivity to poor and rural communities. Last year, FCC chairman Ajit Pai proposed banning carriers from using USF funds to buy equipment from Huawei and other companies deemed to be national security threats. This parallels an administration ban prohibiting the U.S. military, federal agencies, and their contractors from doing so as well.

CNN found in some cases, these smaller carriers provide exclusive coverage to rural areas close to U.S. military bases. CNN studied FCC filings for towers sited close to Malmstrom Air Force Base in central Montana, home to more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles buried deep underground. The rockets are part of the U.S. Strategic Command.  

The media outlet found towers nearby, operated by Triangle Communications System. FCC documents show part of Triangle’s network is comprised of Huawei gear, according to CNN. Union Wireless operates cell towers in southeastern Wyoming near F.E. Warren Air Force Base. However it’s unclear if Huawei gear is used in this network. Neither Triangle nor Union responded to CNN’s request for comment.

Triangle and Union belong to the Rural Wireless Association. The group says about a quarter of its roughly 60 member companies use Chinese telecom technology.

RWA says there’s been no direction from the federal government about how to mitigate any risk posed by the Chinese equipment, now has there been an offer to reimburse the carriers if they need to remove it from their networks. RWA General Counsel Cari Bennet told CNN: “My members are concerned and they want to do the right thing. So, to the extent that there’s information that could be shared with them they’d like to do what’s right.” However she added, ripping out the gear would make the networks “not functional.”

“We know the Chinese are engaged in a massive espionage campaign against the U.S.,” said James Lewis, director of the Technology Policy Program at the D.C.-based think tank, The Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We know that the Chinese engage in massive surveillance against their own population. You put two and two together and say, how comfortable do I feel having Huawei on the phone systems around my most important military bases?”

Huawei has said repeatedly it does not use its technology to spy on other countries and has built no “backdoor” into its network equipment.

A former senior Pentagon information security official told CNN, there’s the potential for Beijing to use the technology for surveillance and intelligence purposes. He admitted he has no evidence of that, but emphasized the potential is there.

March 13, 2019

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