Bipartisan Group of Senators Urge Biden Administration to Fund “Secure” 5G Networks

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Apr 07 2021 |
Use of 5G technology is expected to increase in the coming years. Getty Images

Senators from both sides of the aisle want to ensure there are “5G alternatives to Chinese-made equipment.”

A bipartisan group of 15 senators wrote to President Biden on Tuesday to ask him to include at least $3 billion in funding in his fiscal 2022 budget request to Congress to help secure 5G networks.  

Led by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Ranking Member Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the senators are asking Biden to include at least $1.5 billion each for two funds “to encourage the adoption of Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) equipment.” Doing so will allow additional manufacturers enter the 5G market and compete against companies like Huawei, which is heavily subsidized (if not outright owned) by the Chinese government and poses significant national security risks.

The Senators write:

“For years, we have called on telecommunications providers in the U.S., as well as our allies and partners, to reject Huawei 5G technology, but we have not provided competitively-priced, innovative alternatives that would address their needs. As wireless networks adapt to the growing demands for 5G connectivity, a new Open RAN architecture will allow telecommunications providers to migrate from the current hardware-centric approach into a software-centric model that relies heavily on cloud-based services.”

Others signing the letter include Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Roy Blunt (R-Mos.), Angus King (I-Maine), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Ben Sesse (R-Neb.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Moving to an Open RAN architecture will have a number of benefits, the senators argue, including lowering barriers to entry and promoting innovation, diversifying the supply chain and decreasing dependence on foreign suppliers. It also will “spur Open Ran deployments throughout the United States, particularly in rural America,” the senators note.

This is a pressing issue, because it’s clear that the United States must quickly move away from its relying on companies like Huawei or ZTE, which have been officially designated as national security threats by the Federal Communications Commission.

Take Huawei. It’s unclear who owns Huawei, but it’s probably the Chinese government. Researchers also have found specific ties between Huawei and China’s military and intelligence arms, and the Pentagon officially announced last year that Huawei is among the companies controlled by the People’s Liberation Army.

Putting the nation’s 5G in the hands of a company that is likely owned by the Chinese government and also controlled by its military seems like a bad call, right? As Warner told the Verge back in 2019, any “supposedly safe Chinese product is one firmware update away from being an insecure Chinese product.”

This isn’t just about making sure that cell phones are secure, either (although that is important). Technology like 5G is utilized for a number of purposes, from the military to critical infrastructure. The United States needs 5G, and it needs 5G that is safe and secure.

Plus, there are economic concerns.

It’s well established that China is aiming to dominate global industries like rail car and electric vehicle production. One way it traditionally has done this via its “state champions” like the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), which makes rail cars.

The game plan is simple: CRRC severely underbids for contracts to bid new rail cars in order to establish a market foothold. It can do this repeatedly, since it is a Chinese state-owned company and doesn’t have to worry about making a profit – the only goal is to force competitors out of business.

Congress passed legislation in 2019 (which became law) banning CRRC and bus manufacturer Build Your Dreams (BYD) from federally funded transit contracts. But by that point, CRRC already was building rail cars for transit systems in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

This kills U.S. jobs. Every $1 billion in funding given to a Chinese state-owned or controlled company costs up to 5,100 U.S. jobs. That’s because so much of the production happens abroad. Even if the rail cars are assembled locally, folks in the U.S. supply chain are not doing the work making all the parts that go into the cars. And there are at least 750 companies operating in 39 states that manufacture components for transit and passenger rail.

O.K., I know what you are thinking: This article was supposed to be about 5G, not rail cars. How does Huawei play into all this?

Well, China’s state-owned or controlled companies are linked with other state-owned or controlled companies. CRRC doesn’t just use technology from companies like Huawei; it actively cooperates with Huawei, connecting physical infrastructure to Huawei’s information technology networks in pursuit of “a government-linked ‘Internet of Things’ with Chinese characteristics.”

Here’s how this plays out in the real world. In Boston right now, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is considering vendors for its commuter rail fiber optic network resiliency project. Given that CRRC makes rail cars for the MBTA, there’s talk that Huawei is in the mix for the contract.

Now, it would be illegal for the MBTA to bring on Huawei if it takes any federal money for the project. AAM President Scott Paul noted in a recent letter to the MBTA that the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 “prohibits federal grant recipients from procuring or contracting certain telecommunications equipment, systems, or services from the People’s Republic of China.”

The MBTA may decide to forgo federal funding and move ahead with Huawei anyway. But it shouldn’t, given the array of security risks posed. Here’s what Scott Paul wrote:

“This fiber optic system, supporting one of the largest subway systems in the world is an important component of our critical infrastructure. As we learned as part of the 9/11 attacks on New York, the resiliency and integrity of our telecommunications network is not only key to those at risk during a potential event, but also a key component of a system to manage and reduce public distress. Relying on a company that, under China’s national security laws must abide by the Chinese Communist Party’s orders is unacceptable.”

We know the threats posed by Huawei and other companies with direct ties to China’s government. But at the same time, the United States needs technologies like 5G. There’s no getting around it.

It isn’t enough just to ban Huawei. The United States also needs to provide viable alternatives. Doing so will secure America’s 5G network while creating new jobs and strengthening our domestic production capabilities, laying the groundwork for a more secure future.

It’s good to see bipartisan interest in this critical issue, and we’ll be closely monitoring this and other 5G efforts in the coming months. Stay tuned.