All the major US wireless providers—including AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile—cut Chinese equipment manufacturers out of their networks years ago to avoid this potential sticking point. But small rural carriers, which often struggle to stay profitable, bought Huawei and ZTE tech in recent years because they undercut competitors. The FCC decision puts those operators on the hook for a replacement process that could cost a billion dollars or more industry-wide.In a move that could potentially help ease that burden, the FCC announced a $9 billion investment in rural 5G networks last Wednesday. Later that night, Huawei sued the agency over the ban.
"It's a whole complicated situation," says Syed Rafiul Hussain, a 5G and mobile network security researcher at Purdue University in Indiana. "Rural wireless operators may be reluctant to spend money on new cell site equipment, testing, and transition, but protecting security and user privacy comes with a cost."
Many rural carriers argue that they've never had cybersecurity issues with Huawei or ZTE products. Huawei's lawsuit similarly emphasizes that the FCC and other branches of the US government haven't provided specific evidence of a credible threat.
"Our basic view is this is a preordained rush to judgment by the FCC where they’re not really interested in looking at facts," says Michael Carvin, a partner at Jones Day, the Washington, DC-based law firm representing Huawei. "They’re a communications agency, they’re not a national security agency. The question the FCC is supposed to be asking is 'are you providing quality service at an affordable, just rate?' Huawei is being singled out for unfair treatment."
ZTE did not return a request from WIRED for comment.The Department of Justice, Congress, and numerous non-governmental tech industry and national security groups have emphasized, though, that they're concerned about the potential for future threats, rather than something carriers would have already seen problems with."Chinese law requires all companies subject to its jurisdiction to secretly comply with demands from Chinese intelligence services," FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in an October statement announcing the proposal to limit funding for carriers still using Huawei or ZTE equipment. "As the United States upgrades its networks to the next generation of wireless technologies—5G—we cannot ignore the risk that the Chinese government will seek to exploit network vulnerabilities in order to engage in espionage, insert malware and viruses, and otherwise compromise our critical communications networks."
In the US, the Chinese telecom giant is best-known for the government’s national security concerns—and allegations that it stole intellectual property from companies like Cisco and Motorola. "#Huawei is using the tactics of patent trolls to attack U.S. companies in retaliation for Trump administration national security actions against them," Rubio tweeted.
While Huawei has a clear economic interest in preserving its ability to do business in the US, rural carriers are simply worried about the potential cost of replacing existing equipment while simultaneously building out 5G. Though the FCC initiative to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment has been colloquially called "rip and replace," it's not quite so simple. The logistics of the process are closer to "replace and remove."First carriers need to take inventory of how much Chinese tech they have to replace—no small feat in complicated, remote networks—and acquire new equipment from non-Chinese manufacturers like Ericsson and Nokia. Then they set up the new components in parallel with existing infrastructure, using virtualized test environments to catch interoperability issues and troubleshoot as many transitional problems as possible. "There might be initial unforeseen problems in terms of performance and service quality," says Hussain. Finally, the carriers bring the new equipment online in the live network, phasing out the old tech carefully to minimize outages or downtime.