Not so fast: Industry urges FCC to move carefully in restricting access to Chinese equipment

The FCC wants to prohibit (PDF) U.S. companies from using its Universal Service Fund (USF) to buy equipment that could pose "a national security threat to the integrity of communications networks or the communications supply chain." That's broadly understood to mean network infrastructure made by China's Huawei and ZTE, two companies that the largest American carriers stopped working with in the U.S. almost six years ago due to pressure from Congress. 

Nonetheless, U.S. carriers are pushing back against the FCC's latest proposal. AT&T says that if the government wants to prevent telecom companies from buying Chinese equipment, it should place the same restrictions on cable companies and other internet service providers.

"With providers’ choices of equipment and services strongly impacting both cost and innovation, restricting the equipment and service choices of some market participants but not others, as would result from limiting such measures to USF recipients, would potentially distort competition and harm consumers," AT&T wrote in a filing (PDF).

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Industry trade group CTIA also submitted comments (PDF) on the FCC proposal, arguing that the U.S. wireless industry already prioritizes security and designs networks to be safe and reliable.

"The wireless industry has developed air interfaces with standards-based encryption to safeguard wireless communications in transit, as well as authentication standards for devices and users on networks, using enhanced cryptographic keys to validate and authorize access to the network," CTIA wrote in a filing. "Ciphering and coding data travels over wireless networks to ensure that the networks remain free from corruption and unauthorized modification, and strict access controls are in place to limit and monitor physical and virtual network access. Wireless networks are built with multiple redundancies and other robust network management practices that increase the availability and reliability of the networks."

The most scathing criticism (PDF) of the FCC's proposal came from U.S. attorneys hired by Huawei. The world's largest maker of wireless infrastructure called the FCC's proposal arbitrary, capricious, impractical and imprudent. The lawyers argue that the FCC does not have the authority to tell USF recipients how they can spend the money. They say the USF has nothing to do with national security, which is meant to be the president's job. 

"The Commission has no method to identify or evaluate the validity of an alleged threat to national security," according to Huawei's lawyers. "The [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] fails to assess the complexities of global supply chains, which make the wholesale blacklisting of companies based on their country of origin an ineffectual means of guarding against purported bad actors. The NPRM also does not take into consideration the degree of cybersecurity risk for USF recipients, many of whom are small, rural entities, school districts or libraries, and not only represent a small fraction of U.S. telecommunications networks but are also unlikely targets of cyberattacks."