FCC commissioner wants Huawei gear out of US networks

Democrat Geoffrey Starks says the US government should replace risky Chinese telecommunications gear and fund rural carriers as part of the effort.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks testifying before a House of Representatives committee last month.

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Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks is leading an effort to scrub US telecommunications networks of gear from companies such as Huawei that're thought of as a threat to the country's security. With US operators racing toward deploying gear to build the next generation of wireless, known as 5G, the Commerce Department has blacklisted Huawei and several other companies because of national security concerns.

The main issue with Huawei is its cozy relationship with the Chinese government. National security officials fear that its equipment could be used to spy on other countries and companies. In May, President Donald Trump issued an executive order effectively banning new Huawei gear from US communications networks.

Huawei has long denied its gear can be used to spy or to compromise US security.

The FCC is already considering prohibiting carriers with such gear from accessing broadband subsidies, but Starks says the government should go one step further to weed out equipment from vendors like Huawei that the US government says poses significant risks.

Next week, Starks will convene a workshop at the agency's headquarters in Washington to bring together industry executives, national security experts and academics to think through how the US can rip out and replace risky equipment in an effort he calls "Find it. Fix it. Fund it."

Starks, a Democrat who was confirmed by the Senate in January, has made network security his top issue at the FCC. As a lawyer in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice, under Barack Obama appointee Eric Holder, he provided advice on domestic and international law enforcement issues, including civil, criminal and national security matters.

CNET talked to Starks by phone about his efforts. Below is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

Q: What are the security threats from having Huawei equipment in US telecommunications networks?
Starks: When I was at the Department of Justice, I had some national security issues in my portfolio, so I've had national security briefings in the past. Now, in my capacity as a commissioner, I deeply believe that network security is national security.

The FCC needs to step into its role to make sure that we're securing our communication networks, which underpin our utilities, transportation, financial and health care systems. Specific risks of having Huawei gear in our networks include spying or surveillance that could impact our networks and their abilities to operate. The second big risk national security experts talk about is the ability for foreign governments to disrupt our communications networks, especially during a national emergency.

Watch this: What is going on between Huawei and the US?

This isn't just about preventing 5G equipment from getting into US carrier networks. There's some 3G and 4G gear deployed too, right?
Starks: That's right. Having Huawei in our current network infrastructure means that we are exposed to the same type of risks that we're talking about for our next-generation 5G networks.

One thing I want to make clear is that we can't just focus solely on making sure our networks are secure going forward, but that we make certain we don't have any national security risks in our current networks when we know there is lots of Huawei gear already out there. The thing that I'm really focused on right now is coming up with solutions for dealing with Huawei and other risky equipment that's already in our networks.

How big a problem is this? How much Huawei gear is in US carrier networks?
Starks: The first thing we need to do is understand the scope of the problem. That's why I've invited a number of carriers, manufacturers, industry associations, academics and national security experts to come to the FCC on Thursday to be part of helping me think through this. We need to put our heads together on this "Find it. Fix it. Fund it." idea.

There are three distinct levels as I see it. The first is how many carriers are we talking about that have equipment that is risky in their networks. One association that has a number of rural carriers has told me that they know it's predominantly small, rural carriers that are using this gear. They believe it's about 25% of nearly 50 of its carrier members that have this type of equipment.

We need to make sure we have a system where we have carriers raise their hand and self-identify that they have this equipment in their infrastructure. That ties very much into making sure that the "funded" part is very clearly defined.

Cellular gear

Cellular network gear has become a fixture of the modern landscape.

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The second thing is that we need to identify what equipment is particularly risky. This is something we need to work through with national security folks and with academics in the field.

Is it the Huawei software and code? Or is it specific equipment we need to identify as something that should be prohibited? Does it go to the core of the network, like routers and servers? Or does it extend to antennas and radios that go to the edge part of the network? We need to figure out which equipment has issues.

Then that leads to the last part, which is to what extent any given carrier has this equipment in their network infrastructure.

You mentioned this is primarily an issue for small rural carriers. The four largest nationwide carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- don't have Huawei equipment in their networks. So how much of a threat is this really? Does this mean that our national communications network is only as safe as its weakest link?
Starks: We live in an interconnected world. Our communications flow from one carrier to another. This is great for ensuring that our communications happen fast and at a low cost. But I deeply believe that if we have a carrier with security problems, then we all have a security problem.

At the FCC we're currently considering whether to offer Universal Service Fund support to companies that could have insecure telecommunications equipment. You see that Congress has also spoken up on this issue with the National Defense Authorization Act, where Congress has prohibited government procurement of telecommunications equipment from certain Chinese companies. The NDAA actually names Huawei and ZTE.

Then you have the president's recent executive order, where he barred US companies from buying foreign-made telecom equipment that would be considered a national security risk. Those definitions of who is considered a risk is something that the Commerce Department and Homeland Security in consultation with the FCC are working through.

Are you aware of any network gear that's been compromised in the US or anywhere in the world?
Starks: I know that there are carriers who have this Huawei equipment in their infrastructure. And I have received national security briefings on the threats that are posed by having Chinese equipment in such networks. There have been reports that in Europe folks have identified software code that was in Chinese equipment that they considered to be risky. So that's the general nature of some of the threats that we've seen right now.

How do we go about getting this gear out of US networks?
Starks: That's part of what we're thinking through. Remediation is the clearest way to do this. A rip and replace is what a number of people have suggested. Again, that gets back to step one: We have to figure out what is the proper scope, and what is the equipment at issue. Then we have to think about replacing it. Because of the nature of some of these small, rural carriers, we're also going to have to make sure that we provide them the funding to do this properly. That's really important.

The main reason that rural carriers were using Huawei gear was because it was cheaper than equipment from other companies. Do you think Congress should help pay for this?
Starks: Going back to 2012 and 2013, there has been some indication from the US government that we were growing increasingly concerned about having Huawei and some of these Chinese equipment makers in our communications infrastructure. But it wasn't until the president's executive order just a month or so ago that it became absolutely official that procuring and buying this equipment was going to be prohibited. So we certainly understand that some rural carriers made a business decision before this ban was in place.

What I am focused on now is the fact that if this is a national security risk, and I believe it is, the most important thing is to make sure that we have a secure nation. If that means that the government has to be the one to take care of that, then I think that's the way it should be.

Do you have any idea how much this will cost?
Starks: The answer is very much tied up in the scope of the problem. There has been bipartisan legislation proposed by Sen. [Roger] Wicker [a Republican from Mississippi] and co-sponsored by Sen. [Mark] Warner [a Democrat from Virginia] that proposes $700 million. I know, I've heard numbers that go as high as $1 billion. And it could be higher. It certainly seems like folks on Capitol Hill agree that there is going to be a need for some government funding here.

Do you have support from your fellow FCC commissioners, including the three Republicans, for a government funded rip and replace effort?
Starks: I won't speak for them. I know that Sen. Wicker, who is a Republican, is the one who introduced the legislation that is proposing funding the remediation of some of this Chinese equipment. As for the Republican commissioners in the majority, national security risks are something that we all have been thinking through. Very recently, we unanimously voted on keeping China Mobile out of the US market. It had an application pending before the FCC to operate here and that was unanimously rejected by all of us because of a number of issues, including the national security risks.

How much of the issue with Huawei is about trade? I know you say there are national security risks, but is keeping Huawei out of the US market at least partly about the US' fears that China will overtake the US in terms of technology and economic power?
Starks: This question gets into whether the administration's overall trade negotiations with China are involved in the ban. I am focused on, the national security aspect of this with regard to our telecommunications networks. The trade negotiations are in the president's lane; I'm really focused on the national security aspect.

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