FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks today called for a “holistic” approach to the threat posed to U.S. communications networks by equipment from vendors such as China-based Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp. that are deemed to pose a national security threat, saying that not only should future network purchases from such vendors be avoided, but that the Commission and stakeholders need to address equipment already in place — and the FCC needs to consider whether carriers, especially small carriers, will need support to fund replacement of such equipment.
To that end, Commissioner Starks said during a speech at a Federal Communications Bar Association event today, he is convening a workshop next week. He told reporters after the event that his office has invited the other Commissioners to take part in the workshop, which is planned for June 27, and that it will be open to the public.
“The risks of having insecure equipment in our networks are alarming — beyond the threat of simple foreign surveillance and hacking, there is a real risk of disruption to our communications capabilities in the event of a national emergency. And in addition, these risks mean that our critical infrastructure, financial systems, healthcare, and transportation systems are open to exposure to some of these risks,” the Commissioner said during his speech.
He noted the on-going FCC proceeding on whether to prohibit universal service support for equipment purchases from vendors deemed to be security risks, as well as the recent FCC decision to deny an international section 214 authorization to China Mobile. “While this vote was just for one Chinese carrier, two others with similar ownership structures, China Telecom and China Unicom, have existing approval to operate in the U.S. So we at the FCC of course need to determine whether they present the same set of threats and we need to act if they do,” he said.
He noted actions by Congress and the president to prohibit government agency purchases from companies deemed to be a national security threat.
However, he said, “[e]ach of these actions considers what to do about insecure equipment going forward, but none addresses a critical problem — this equipment is already in our networks. Lots of it. The threat is real, and it’s already here. And we need solutions. We cannot treat this issue asymmetrically — where we focus strictly on how to keep insecure equipment with a national security risk out of our network going forward, but don’t address the equipment already in our infrastructure.
“That’s why next week I will be convening a group of stakeholders — including carriers, manufacturers, academics, trade associations, and other folks interested in this issue so that we can start crafting and developing a practical path forward. Specifically, I anticipate digging into what it will take to Find the insecure equipment, Fix the problem, and help Fund the process. Find it. Fix it. Fund it,” he continued.
He added, “There currently exists an active debate on whether all of this equipment, Huawei in particular, poses a threat, or whether some of it could be safe. We need to consider each part of the wireless network and the threats posed. Is the risk only in the network core of routers, servers and switches? Does it extend also to the edge of the network, [to] radios and antenna?”
Commissioner Starks continued, “Second, where we find equipment that does pose a threat, we need to fix it. That’s easier said than done. We need a transition away from insecure equipment as rapidly as possible. Some folks have suggested a ‘rip and replace’ approach may be necessary; if so, we must minimize disruption to everyday consumers. That’s going to take planning and time, so we need to start as soon as possible to restore the security of our networks.
“Finally, we can’t expect carriers to carry this national security funding burden equipment alone. This is a national problem and it needs a national solution. Many of the carriers who purchased this equipment are small or operate in rural areas and may not be able to cover the costs of replacement without financial support,” he added.
In response to questions on-stage after his speech, Commissioner Starks emphasized that while he is “all for 5G,” attention also needs to be focused on individuals and communities “left behind” on the other side of the digital divide. “That’s when you need to talk about equity and inclusion,” he said.
He also emphasized the need for better broadband mapping data, noting that the agency had to “mothball” its Mobility Fund Phase II proceeding “because there was a lack of confidence in that data.” He also raised concern over the fact that the agency “didn’t have an outlier detection system for a first-time filer” of Form 477 broadband data, so that it initially incorporated in its section 706 broadband deployment report data that indicated a new broadband provider had become the fourth-largest broadband provider in the country in just six months.
Speaking to reporters after the public event, Commissioner Starks said that he has still not received any details on the agency’s probe of wireless carriers’ provision of subscribers’ location data to location data aggregators and providers of location-based services (LBS). He said that he does not have access to letters of inquiry sent to carriers by the Enforcement Bureau. “I have not had granular access to the investigative record here that I have asked for, that Commissioner [Jessica] Rosenworcel has asked for,” he said.
“The most important thing right now is that we resolve that investigation as quickly as possible,” he said. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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