Lawmakers urge FCC to assist in effort to rip out, replace suspect network equipment

Lawmakers urge FCC to assist in effort to rip out, replace suspect network equipment
© Greg Nash

The bipartisan leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Monday to take action to ensure telecommunications providers could begin ripping out and replacing potentially suspect network equipment. 

The concerns come months after President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE signed into law the Secure and Trusted Communications Act, which bans U.S. companies from using federal funds to purchase equipment from Chinese telecom groups Huawei and ZTE, citing national security concerns. 

The law, which was sponsored in the Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and ranking member Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Ex-Rep. John Shimkus joins lobbying firm Lobbying world MORE (R-Ore.), among other sponsors from both parties, also established a $1 billion fund to help smaller telecom groups rip out and replace equipment that is deemed a threat. The fund is administered by the FCC. 

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Pallone and Walden sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit PaiAjit PaiLobbying world Biden revokes Trump-era order targeting shield for website operators Top Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles MORE on Monday emphasizing that while Congress had not yet fully funded this reimbursement program, the FCC should take a series of steps immediately to ensure the process of replacing potentially suspicious equipment could begin. 

“It is a top bipartisan, bicameral priority of the United States Congress to ensure that our nation’s communications networks are secure,” Pallone and Walden wrote. “The United States cannot allow the critical networks upon which consumers rely to be subject to espionage and malicious disruption by hostile foreign actors.”

The lawmakers asked the FCC to “reassure” smaller U.S. telecom groups that they will be reimbursed for purchasing equipment even if the federal program is not yet funded. 

They also asked the FCC to immediately release a list of “eligible replacement equipment, software, and services” for U.S. groups to purchase from in replacing the suspect equipment, with the FCC required to compile this list by the new law. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having reliable and secure communications services, and companies eligible for reimbursement under the Program will have to engage in very careful and intentional planning to replace suspect equipment while at the same time not disrupting its service,” the lawmakers wrote. 

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“We urge you to take these specific, non-controversial actions as quickly as possible so these important efforts to secure our communications networks are not delayed,” they added. 

An FCC spokesperson told The Hill that Pai "strongly agrees" with the "goal of ensuring that our nation's communications networks are secure."

The spokesperson pointed to work already undertaken by the FCC to push back against Chinese telecom groups Huawei and ZTE. The agency unanimously voted last year to designate both companies as national security threats and ban the use of the FCC's $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund from being used by U.S. groups to purchase equipment from companies deemed threats. 

The FCC spokesperson noted that the FCC will vote next month on implementing the reimbursement program "months before the statutory deadline."

“He also agrees that it is more vital than ever that Congress appropriate funds to allow the Commission to fully support carriers through the remove and replace process," the spokesperson said of Pai. 

Both Huawei and ZTE have denied posing threats to U.S. national security, and Huawei is currently in the middle of a legal battle to challenge the FCC's designation. 

Pallone and Walden are also sponsors of legislation approved by the House last week that would appropriate $750 million toward building out U.S. fifth generation, or 5G, network technology in order to combat threats from foreign-made equipment.