LAS VEGAS — In his first speaking engagement at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) since he became the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 2017, Ajit Pai said that he has “met with Rakuten” and discussed wireless security issues with company executives. Rakuten Mobile is building a 4G/5G greenfield network in Japan based on open software and virtualization technologies.
His comment about Rakuten came up in an interview with Consumer Technology Association (CTA) CEO Gary Shapiro who asked Pai about the security of wireless networks. Under Pai, the FCC has put barriers in place for Chinese vendors such as Huawei and ZTE to sell their equipment to U.S. wireless carriers. The FCC has adopted an interim order barring U.S. service providers from using the government’s $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund (USF) to purchase equipment or services from Huawei and ZTE. A final determination is expected from the FCC sometime this spring.
Shapiro pointed out that there is no major U.S. telecom vendor that compares to Huawei, ZTE, Nokia or Ericsson, and he asked if it made sense to trust Nordic telecom vendors but not Chinese vendors.
Pai said, “There’s no American-based supplier of equipment. But people are innovating to virtualize the radio access network and other parts of the 5G network. I’ve met with Rakuten. I just met recently with Altiostar, a Boston-based company.”
He indicated that 5G with its multitude of small cells and edge compute locations “increases the attack surface,” in terms of security. Pai is interested in companies such as Rakuten and Altiostar because they are working on next-generation wireless networks that replace proprietary hardware with software stacks that can run on generic hardware. He said these virtualized networks will help to bypass some security issues and also decrease the cost of building 5G networks.
“Software is something America has really led on,” said Pai. Although Rakuten is a Japanese company, it’s using vendors from all around the world, including Altiostar, which is a U.S.-based vendor.
Pai said he’s “been spending a lot of time” on the issue of security in wireless networks. In May, the FCC blocked China Mobile from entering the U.S. market, citing national security concerns.
At CES, Pai said he has also spoken with Vietnamese telecom operators, whom he said “have a keen understanding of the risk profile of some of this equipment.” And he also mentioned the Prague Proposals. In May of 2019, government officials from 32 countries participated in the Prague 5G Security Conference. They came up with a framework for understanding the security risks of different equipment and software in a 5G network. “Extending that framework is going to be incredibly important to us,” said Pai.
At CES, the FCC chairman also touted his 5G Fast Plan, which includes a focus on more spectrum, more fiber and easier deployment of small cells.
Fiber and small cells
It’s fine to promote the deployment of more fiber and more small cells, but Shapiro noted that there’s a labor shortage in the United States. Pai agreed that in many parts of the country it’s difficult to find workers, particularly as tower climbers. “There aren’t a lot of crews of people able to do the work,” he said. “To me it’s just: the job is extremely demanding.” He bragged that he had climbed a 130-foot-tall cell tower, but he added that was a relatively short tower compared to some, and he didn’t have to carry a heavy equipment bag or actually do installation work. “You quickly recognize that it is not a job that’s easy to do.”
Pai acknowledged that tower work “really is one of the core jobs of building these networks.” He said that it might be a younger-person’s type of job, and in the current tight labor market younger people may prefer easier, indoor jobs.
In terms of fiber, he said it’s critical to wireless infrastructure, and he wants companies to get access to utility poles to string fiber. He’s advocating for electric utilities to participate in fiber rollouts. “These companies have an extremely deep footprint,” he said.