FCC’s pending vote on national security raises more concerns

Gartner expects demand for IoT security tools to surge next year (Image artisteer / iStockPhoto)
The FCC said its proposal is aimed at security the country's communication networks. (artisteer/iStockPhoto)

Nokia, the Rural Wireless Association and others are raising additional concerns about the FCC’s planned vote this month on a proposal that is designed to bar companies deemed a national security threat from supplying equipment to U.S. carriers.

The issue is a complex one, but it largely centers on a proposal from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to block money from the government’s Universal Service Fund from going to telecom companies that use equipment from the likes of Huawei and ZTE, which have been fingered as possible conduits for Chinese espionage. While those companies have argued against such claims, momentum appears to be growing around actions that would further prevent them from selling equipment into the U.S. market.

Specifically, during its open meeting Tuesday, the FCC is scheduled to vote on a proposal (PDF) that, going forward, would mean no universal service support could be used to purchase or obtain any equipment or services produced or provided by any company posing a national security threat to the integrity of communications networks or the communications supply chain.

Nokia, for its part, said in a filing (PDF) that it agrees with the FCC’s goal of securing the nation’s infrastructure, but that the agency should clarify certain aspects of its plans, including by providing further details on exactly what constitutes a threat to the nation’s security.

“Nokia believes that the Commission’s approach has less to do with country of origin as a basis of risk assessment and more to do with supplier trustworthiness,” the company wrote. “Therefore, the risk of an overly broad application of the rules is minimal. Nevertheless, given the criticality of the issue and the early efforts to misconstrue the Commission’s intent, Nokia seeks clarifications.”

Interestingly, Nokia also noted that “certain parties,” which the company did not name, have been using the FCC’s pending vote to gin up sales ahead of a possible crackdown on suppliers.

“There are parties that are promoting a narrative that the Commission is seeking to cast a wide net, to indiscriminately bar vendors that have a presence in, or manufacture in, certain geographies, such as China,” Nokia wrote. “Of course, essentially all major information technology and communications companies have global supply chains, many of which include sourcing of components from China and elsewhere. Those who are against the Commission’s proposed action to secure our Nation’s infrastructure are using the fact that many companies share common countries of origin in their supply chains as a basis to suggest the draft order would therefore have sweeping effect and greatly limit equipment supplier options for carriers seeking USF support. It is the clear intention of such entities to create opposition to the Draft NPRM by raising unsubstantiated fears about a broadly applied restriction.”

While Nokia sought clarification, the Rural Wireless Association offered broader opposition to the FCC’s plans. The association warned specifically that the proposal would both fail to protect national security and “irreparably damage broadband networks (and limit future deployment) in many rural and remote areas throughout the country.”

Specifically, the RWA urged the agency to focus on the creation of standards and a testing system to attain its goals rather than “imposing a costly and ultimately ineffective ‘country of origin’ prohibitory regime that would provide nothing more than a false sense of security.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the National Federation of Independent Business also registered its opposition to the FCC’s plans, arguing it would have an adverse impact on small businesses.

Other entities voicing concerns about the FCC’s pending vote include the Competitive Carriers Association and some smaller wireless operators.

However, according to Communications Daily, the two Democratic commissioners on the five-member, Republican-led FCC are poised to vote for Pai’s proposal next week.