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Growing Role of 5G, Technology Spurred Tougher Look at Gear from China

The FCC’s 2022 order further clamping down on gear from Chinese companies, preventing the sale of yet-to-be authorized equipment in the U.S. (see 2211230065), was years in the making and reflected long-term concerns of Congress and the FCC, speakers said Tuesday during an FCBA webinar.

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Congress and the White House have been moving to address security risks in commercial infrastructure and equipment for years,” said Jenner & Block’s Trey Hanbury. The SECURE Technology Act of 2018 was “the first real foray into trying to secure previously insecure equipment and vendor activity,” he said.

Sometimes the way technology evolves “kind of changes how we think about these things,” said Matthew Pearl, director-emerging technology at the White House National Security Council. The advent of 5G has led to a “collision between the digital and physical world” where sensors are making changes to the physical world and collecting data, he said. “That kind of changes how you think about the centrality of networks,” he said.

Communications networks and sensors play a role in U.S. energy networks today that’s different than in the past, Pearl said. “It’s really critical that we are relying on tested vendors and that providers in our networks, as well, are trusted,” he said. That doesn’t mean just U.S. companies but trusted players from Europe and elsewhere like Ericsson and Nokia, he said. The fundamental issue is whether the equipment comes from a country that “has the rule of law” or a “history of engaging in malicious cyberattacks that are supported by the government,” he said.

The focus has to be broader than China, Pearl said: “It’s not a protectionist thing. … It’s really about being able to count on having secure networks.”

Congress’s hard look at Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese providers started in 2012, with an investigation by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Gerald Leverich, vice president, Salt Point Strategies and a former Hill staffer. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2020, which called out Chinese companies, was a “shock to the system for many people,” he said. “That really stirred a lot of the work,” he said.

The 2012 report “really first put the Huawei/ZTE issue on our radar,” said John Lin, senior counsel to the House Commerce Committee. The NDAA of 2017 contained the first ban, blocking DOD from purchasing gear from the Chinese providers, he said. That led to the FCC’s USF prohibition, he said. There has been “a decade-long push … as we saw the bigger threat” from China, he said. There has been bipartisan support for keeping the gear out of U.S. networks, he said.

Some concerns predated the 2012 report, said Stuart Styron, senior technology policy counsel for the U.S. House. “There’s a continued ongoing concern,” which started with Huawei and now includes other Chinese companies, he said.

There’s also a concern that in the past “the U.S. dominated all the fields that really mattered to economic, political, military might -- miniaturized electronics, GPS, software,” Hanbury said. China seems poised to dominate technological fields like AI, biotech, quantum science and space, he said. Technology now is “a bit of a battleground, whether we like that or not,” he said.

People shouldn’t get caught up in believing China is poised to win on AI and other technology, Styron said. “There’s a healthy competition” between the U.S. and China and “by all measures the U.S. is still the global leader in just about every technology,” he said. AI is probably at the top of technology issues on Congress’s radar, but the technology isn’t new -- “it has just become the topic du jour in the last 12 months or so” mostly because of generative AI, he said.