The US government is taking more steps to block Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE from American networks.
The Federal Communications Commission proposed two measures this week to stop US carriers from using technology from the two companies. The first would ban carriers from using money from the Universal Service Fund, an FCC-managed program that offers subsidies to low-income households, to buy equipment from Huawei, ZTE, or other companies deemed to pose a national security risk. The second, which is still in its earliest stages, would require carriers that receive money from the Universal Service Fund to remove existing Huawei and ZTE equipment from their networks and suggests the government may help those carriers buy replacement equipment. The agency is seeking comment on how much time carriers should have to remove existing equipment.
"We need to make sure our networks won’t harm our national security, threaten our economic security, or undermine our values," FCC Chair Ajit Pai said in a statement Monday. "The Chinese government has shown repeatedly that it is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do just that."
Huawei has repeatedly denied that it has or would help the Chinese government spy on its customers.
None of the US’s "big four" wireless carriers---AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile---use Huawei equipment, Huawei executive Tim Danks confirmed earlier this year. Neither do cable internet providers Comcast or Charter. But Huawei does have a number of smaller, mostly rural carriers as customers in the US. Huawei argued in a statement that the FCC's plan will further the digital divide in the US because it "only impacts the broadband providers in the most unserved or underserved rural areas of the United States." ZTE did not respond to a request for comment.
Replacing Huawei equipment would be a big headache for rural carriers Jim Kail, the CEO of Laurel Highland Total Communications in Pennsylvania, told WIRED earlier this year. Laurel Highland uses Huawei equipment to provide home fiber-optic internet to its customers. Kail says even with funds from the government, replacing Huawei gear would slow down the company's efforts to deploy high-speed internet to new and underserved areas because the company would have to pull staff from expansion efforts and have them focus on swapping out existing gear. And even if the government pays to replace existing gear, he worries that keeping Huawei and ZTE out of the US market will lead to higher prices for equipment due to reduced competition.
Kail says he could accept those trade-offs if he knew Huawei gear posed a security threat. But he hasn't seen any evidence of wrongdoing by the company. "I'm not privy to the information that the higher-ups in our government have, but we've done our due diligence," he says. "We've had conversations with the FBI. No one's been able to come back and say 'here's the proof.'"
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Joe Franell, CEO of Eastern Oregon Telecom, an internet service provider in Hermiston, Oregon that also uses Huawei gear, agrees. "All this gear was legally sold in the United States with full permission from the federal government," he told WIRED earlier this year. "Now we're being told it's not secure. It's not just Huawei. It's the question of, how do I know what gear is going to be blessed as being secure?"
Huawei pressed back against the idea that its gear poses a security risk. "In 30 years of business, Huawei has never had a major security-related incident in the 170 countries where we operate," the company's statement says.
A report published by the UK government earlier this year identified a number of security flaws in Huawei's equipment. But it concluded that they were due to software development processes, not malice. It's impossible to say whether Huawei's competitors' products are more secure because other companies haven't submitted their code for the same sort of testing.