Lawmakers look for 5G competitors to Huawei

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Lawmakers on Wednesday heard from executives at top telecommunications companies as the Senate Commerce Committee weighed measures to prevent Chinese giant Huawei from getting a foothold in the emerging U.S. 5G network.

The hearing on “5G supply chain security” featured executives from companies including Nokia and Ericsson, who touted their technology as a viable and secure alternative and offered their support for legislation to help American telecom providers replace Huawei equipment.

Washington has grappled with the question of how to exclude Huawei, the largest provider of 5G equipment worldwide, as the U.S. begins a massive rollout of 5G. Concerns largely stem from a 2017 Chinese intelligence law that requires Chinese companies and citizens to assist in state intelligence work if requested. 

European firms Nokia and Ericsson are often cited as the largest competitors for manufacturing 5G equipment.

Jason Boswell, the head of security for Ericsson’s Network Product Solutions, testified that Ericsson saw their products as “the best in the world.” He argued that should the U.S. decide to rely on Ericsson for 5G equipment, the company saw no “restrictions on our ability to meet manufacturing demand.”

Michael Murphy, the chief technology officer for Nokia in the Americas region, noted that while Huawei was a “formidable opponent” due to the heavy investment by Chinese banks into the company and its market share, he did “not feel we are at a technical disadvantage to being able to keep on par with Huawei.”

Concern around Huawei on Capitol Hill has been a rare area of bipartisan agreement in recent months, and the Trump administration made convincing allied nations to ban the company from their networks a key priority. But finding a replacement for Huawei’s products has been a challenge for Washington.

Both Boswell and Murphy also on Wednesday threw their weight behind the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act, which the House passed in December and which passed unanimously in the Senate last week.

It would ban the use of federal funds to buy telecom equipment from companies deemed a national security threat, such as Huawei or Chinese firm ZTE. The bill would also create a $1 billion program to assist small telecom providers, mostly in rural areas in the U.S., who depend heavily on Huawei equipment, giving them funding to rip out the equipment posing a threat and replace it with equipment from “trusted providers.”

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) during the hearing said he expected President Trump to soon sign the bill, putting a major dent in Huawei’s business.

“It was a statement by the House and the Senate as a whole on a bipartisan basis, and I expect the president will be signing that legislation with some fanfare in the next few days,” Wicker said. 

A White House spokesperson did not comment on The Hill’s request for when the signing would take place.

Huawei on Wednesday pushed back against Nokia and Ericsson’s claims. 

Huawei USA Chief Security Officer Andy Purdy told The Hill following the hearing that “there is really only one telecom equipment supplier for 5G around the world, and that is Huawei,” adding that Nokia’s and Ericsson’s claims of industry dominance “don’t have a basis in facts.”

“Why doesn’t the community organize public bake-offs, competitions between the technologies?” Purdy said. “I encourage that kind of competition.”

Purdy said Huawei was “really concerned” for its telecom customers in the U.S. if Trump signs the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act, which he said was “forcing pain” on those companies.

“It is going to take more time and cost more time and money than the elected officials recognize,” Purdy said. 

Don Morrissey, Huawei’s director of congressional affairs, told The Hill that while Huawei was not invited to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, they “would like to have been.” Morrissey noted that the company was reaching out to committee members to argue their side in a “methodical way.”

During the hearing, Nokia’s Murphy also cautioned that telecom providers may need a longer timeline to remove equipment deemed a threat from their networks. 

“Nokia can attest that these efforts require careful planning, are network specific, and the times required vary significantly from project to project,” Murphy said. 

Industry representatives also discussed how replacing equipment in rural areas, where smaller telecom firms using Huawei and ZTE equipment often operate, could threaten overall connectivity. 

Steven Barry, the president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents more than 100 telecom companies, said these smaller companies were “essentially attempting to rebuild the airplane in mid-flight.”

“For all the talk about rip and replace, carriers must actually create and execute individual plans that replace, and then rip, they must maintain service before decommissioning,” Barry testified. “Anything less threatens a loss of connectivity in rural America, including access to 911 and other public safety services.”

But senators emphasized that no matter the cost and the timeline, moving away from Huawei was essential.

“Eliminating the threat posed by this equipment is the highest priority,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said. “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.”

U.S. federal agencies have zeroed in on Huawei over the past year, taking steps to limit the company’s business.

Huawei’s efforts to push back against security concerns in the U.S. have been largely unsuccessful, but the United Kingdom in January decided to allow the company’s equipment in “periphery” networks and ban it from more secure 5G networks. Days later, the European Commission announced it would allow European Union member states to decide for themselves which “high risk” telecom groups to allow in their networks. 

These decisions led to anger on Capitol Hill and within the Trump administration, with many officials warning that the U.K.’s decision could endanger intelligence sharing with the U.S.

These concerns ramped up this week amid a heated debate in the British House of Commons on Wednesday around whether to let the country’s Huawei decision stand. Prior to the debate, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) led a group of almost two dozen senators in calling on British members of Parliament to “revisit” the decision. 

While the Senate Commerce Committee held its hearing on Wednesday, a group of Senate Republicans introduced legislation designed to hit back at the U.K. The new bill would require the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review Britain’s “whitelist” status due to the country’s decision to not fully ban Huawei equipment. 

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement that “the United States values its special relationship with the U.K., but allowing Huawei into Britain’s 5G infrastructure will have consequences across several sectors. Ultimately, protecting U.S. trade secrets from the Chinese Communist Party is our top priority.”

Tags Charles Schumer Donald Trump Maria Cantwell Roger Wicker Tom Cotton
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