European telecom equipment makers were on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to reassure lawmakers that their 5G gear is a safe and secure alternative to equipment from Chinese giant Huawei. Their testimony comes as new legislation, allocating $1 billion in subsidies to rip and replace Huawei gear in rural wireless networks, awaits the signature of President Donald Trump.
The Senate Commerce Committee's hearing, titled 5G supply chain security, featured executives from Nokia and Ericsson, which are viewed as the largest competitors in the telecom equipment market for 5G gear. The executives made the case for why the US should trust them to supply the nation's wireless carriers as they build out their 5G networks.
Jason Boswell, who heads up security for Ericsson's Network Product Solutions, told members of Congress that his company's products are "the best in the world." And he said that the company was up to the task of keeping up with manufacturing demand for its products to fuel US 5G networks.
Michael Murphy, the chief technology officer for Nokia in the Americas, also said he felt that his company isn't at "a technical disadvantage to being able to keep on par with Huawei."
Policy makers in Washington, DC have been trying to figure out how best to ensure US leadership in 5G as they work to exclude Chinese manufacturer Huawei, the world's leading supplier of 5G equipment, from US networks.
The main issue with Chinese equipment makers like Huawei and ZTE is the companies' cozy relationships with the Chinese government. National security officials fear that equipment from these manufacturers could be used to spy on other countries and companies. In May, President Trump issued an executive order effectively banning new Huawei gear from US communications networks.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to cut off subsidies to rural wireless carriers that used equipment from suppliers the agency says may pose a national security risk. Congress followed with bi-partisan legislation to fund the replacement of equipment from companies deemed a security risk.
The House passed the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act in December. And last week, the Senate passed the bill unanimously. It is now awaiting the signature of President Trump.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, said during the hearing that he expects Trump to sign the bill soon.
The legislation would ban the use of federal funds to buy equipment from companies that pose a national security threat, such as Huawei or ZTE. It would also create a $1 billion fund to help telecom providers, most of whom are in rural areas, rip out gear from these Chinese firms and replace it with equipment from "trusted providers."
Not an easy job
In addition to the Nokia and Ericsson executive, Steven Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, an industry group representing rural carriers, discussed the difficult nature of ripping out and replacing equipment in these rural parts of the country.
Berry compared the undertaking to "attempting to rebuild the airplane in mid-flight."
He said the biggest difficulty for smaller carriers would be ensuring that they would still be able to keep service going.
"While those inside the beltway often refer to the process as 'rip and replace,'" Berry said, "in practice carriers will typically need to 'replace, then rip' to ensure that the consumers served by rural carriers do not lose service."
He also emphasized the need for Congress to fund the replacement of new gear in these networks.
The senators at the hearing acknowledged that the effort would be costly. But they also said it was necessary.
"Eliminating the threat posed by this equipment is the highest priority," said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee. "We cannot simply look at that issue. We need to make sure we are a loud voice across the globe for no government backdoors to any security network."
The hearing comes as US officials pressure other nations to ban Huawei gear from their 5G networks. So far those efforts have largely been ineffective. In January, the United Kingdom announced it was allowing Huawei gear in the "periphery" of its 5G network. The European Commission also said it would allow European Union member states to decide whether to use gear from "high risk" telecom suppliers.
This week, a bipartisan group of US senators, including Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and Senate minority leader; Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged UK lawmakers to reconsider their government's decision to allow equipment from Huawei.
"Given the significant security, privacy, and economic threats posed by Huawei," the senators said in the letter, "we strongly urge the United Kingdom to revisit its recent decision, take steps to mitigate the risks of Huawei, and work in close partnership with the US on such efforts going forward."