Inside the FCC decision to ban sales of Chinese-made telecom gear

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A normally divided Federal Communications Commission recently voted unanimously to ban sales of Chinese-made telecommunications equipment in the United States. Specifically, gear made by the Huawai and ZTE. To get more on what went into that decision, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Carr, good to have...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

A normally divided Federal Communications Commission recently voted unanimously to ban sales of Chinese-made telecommunications equipment in the United States. Specifically, gear made by the Huawai and ZTE. To get more on what went into that decision, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Carr, good to have you back.

Brendan Carr: Good to be with you. Again. Thanks so much for having me on.

Tom Temin: To review this, there was enabling legislation because this is not normally the kind of decision you would think the FCC would make on banning an import of something or sale of something imported?

Brendan Carr: You know, you’re right. We’ve taken a lot of interesting action at the FCC. But we’ve been focused mostly on removing FCC subsidies, we provide funding for rural internet bills. And we decided a couple of years ago to stop allowing Huawei and ZTE to get that funding. And that went a long way towards stopping that gear from going into our networks. But it didn’t go far enough, there was a loophole, which is to say that the same companies could use private dollars, buy the exact same Huawei and ZTE gear and put it in the exact same point in their network. So we finally stepped in, as you pointed out, with some additional help legislatively from Congress. And now, you cannot get new Huawei or ZTE gear approved for use in the U.S. at all. And that’s an important significant step forward.

Tom Temin: And what types of gear does this cover? Because people generally think of network switching gear or something in a rack. But it’s a little bit broader than that, isn’t it?

Brendan Carr: That’s right, it does apply to all that type of network gear that a consumer wouldn’t necessarily purchase. But it also applies to smartphones. And Huawei is actually pretty deep in the smartphone market. It also applies to certain surveillance camera technologies like Hikvision, … to the extent that those are used at all for sort of public safety purposes. So it broadly applies there as well.

Tom Temin: And what about individuals say that have these doorbells that see who’s coming in this kind of thing? I’m presuming most of that stuff is made in China, even if it’s developed here, does that come under any kind of restriction or that’s proceed at your own caution?

Brendan Carr: Yeah, it’s interesting, we didn’t take action on any of that type of technology. And there’s a complicating issue there that you pointed out, which has to do with component parts. So what we’ve done is, you know, banned a box that says Huawei on it. But to your point, there could be potentially insecure components that are bundled and packaged and put under a different brand name. And that’s something that we’re taking a very close look at as well, it’s obviously a difficult complicated issue to get at, but it’s on our radar, something we want to make sure that takes place. And we’ve already warned people look, you can’t just take a Huawei box, and slap some other generic label on it and go forward that we’re going to have an eye out for that type of conduct.

Tom Temin: Right, because a lot of that gear that is wireless does have an FCC certification on it. So you impinge on that whole market. And I’m just making a parallel if you as I do, at least consider TikTok, I don’t know how entertaining it is because I don’t look at it, I don’t have it on my phone. But say it is entertaining. It’s nevertheless basically a mass data gathering platform for China, for the Chinese government. And so one wonders if all of this surveillance gear even at the amateur or home level, I don’t know what they would learn from who comes to somebody’s front door. But nevertheless, it could be feeding all this information back to China.

Brendan Carr: You’re right. And look, what we’ve done is a bit of a whack a mole process up to now and we do need to address this threat more head on root and branch I think TikTok is a great example. I said in my separate statement on our Huawei decision that doesn’t make much sense to ban network gear if we’re going to allow insecure apps to run on the networks and pull much of the same data and send that same data at least in TikTok’s case, back to Beijing. And so I’ve been very active in calling for the federal government to move forward with some tough action on TikTok because it’s not just a fun application for sharing videos or dance memes, it is that, but that’s really just the sheep’s clothing. Underneath, it operates as a very sophisticated surveillance technology it can take search and browsing history, keystroke patterns, that reserves the right to get biometrics, including face prints and voice prints. And based on internal communications, we’ve seen that everything is seen back in China. So I think it’s incumbent on the Biden administration right now to step forward and complete the review. They’ve been looking at TikTok now for over a year out of the Treasury Department. And I think that component of the federal government needs to reach a final decision. What I’ve said is I just don’t see a path forward at this point where we can consistent with national security allow TikTok to continue to operate.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Brendan Carr. He’s a member of the Federal Communications Commission, and getting back to the Huawei ZTE decision. Was there a lot of discussion among the commissioners or did everyone get together and say, yeah, this is kind of a no brainer, partly because it was enabled by legislation, but partly because both the Democrats and the Republicans believed it was the wise thing to do.

Brendan Carr: And this is about as close to a no brainer as you can get as you point out the FCC. It’s two Democrats, two Republicans right now. And this was a unanimous bipartisan decision. I think it’s been very good to see, look, I think D.C. on a bipartisan basis got things wrong on China for a long time. I thought that we didn’t do enough to sort of stand up to the very real security threat they posed. And thankfully we’re seeing bipartisan changing, of course they are. In fact, Democrat Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) has been one of the toughest on all of these issues. And so it’s been a very pleasant surprise to see the unanimity and the bipartisan approach to Huawei, ZTE and other threats from companies that are tied back into Communist China.

Tom Temin: And what sort of comments did you get? I’m presuming that companies like Juniper and Cisco, you know, the U.S. manufacturers, wherever they actually make their stuff, of network gear commented, did you get comments from the companies affected Huawei and ZTE, also?

Brendan Carr: Yeah, we did. There was a robust wrecker, the companies that were the target of our action, put forth a lot of different arguments, they said, one, it’s not a real security threat, we disagree. And they said to we don’t actually think you have the legal authority to take this action. Obviously, we disagree. But I anticipate that very soon, probably within days or weeks, they’ll file an appeal to the D.C. Circuit to attempt to overturn the FCC’s decision. I’m very confident in our own decision, our legal authority, but that will probably be the next step here.

Tom Temin: Did one of the questions come up at all in the course of all of these deliberations about the technical capabilities of the equipment? Because from what I’ve heard, despite the security risk, functionally, their stuff is pretty darn good.

Brendan Carr: Yeah, there’s been some people that have attempted to say, look, this is, you know, cheap gear, it’s high performance, we actually like it into that. I say, OK, I get that. But, you know, national security has to take precedence over that. And so that’s sort of what’s driving our decision making here. And the reality is there are alternatives out there that people can now purchase, and it’s becoming a more competitive landscape now. And it’s not just the U.S. you look at Europe, they’re now following the U.S.’s lead on Huawei, ZTE, and they’re taking similar tough action there. So I think that’s net net a very good thing.

Tom Temin: And are there any further actions under the enabling legislation that you might be taking in the coming year?

Brendan Carr: Yeah, I think there’s a lot more that we need to do. For instance, there’s additional companies, I think we need to add to our covered list, one that I’ve talked about is this entity called DJI, which is a Shenzhen based drone company. I’m very concerned that that may end up operating like a Huawei on wings. And so I think there’s more we need to do to add entities to our covered list, which is ultimately what then allows us to ban the gear going forward. So there’s a series of actions that we got to continue to take.

Tom Temin: And we should also mention, totally unrelated, there’s a fresh auction round coming of bandwidth.

Brendan Carr: Yeah, we’re always looking to get more airwaves out there. This is one of the great success stories of the last couple of years is we had to find airwaves. And usually it’s being occupied by federal government users are typically not the most efficient users of spectrum. But there’s a lot of negotiation to sort of move them off spectrum bands so that we can move that out in the commercial marketplace. That’s what powers 5G and fixed wireless and all these new technologies that are now giving consumers more choice for their broadband dollars than they’ve ever had before. So that’s a good thing.

Tom Temin: And just as crazy question, whatever happened to the AM revitalization effort is that long nailed shut and buried?

Brendan Carr: Well, you know, this is a great initiative under Chairman Pai I used to work for him was an advisor to him before he became chairman. He really led the way on an understanding that there’s nothing like local radio, Aradio engaged in a lot of reforms to revitalize the band. It bases some technical challenges still, but I think we can probably continue to work out and look at but it’s in a far better spot now, thanks to his sort of run at the FCC than it was before.

Tom Temin: Good, because I was afraid I would retire before that ever happened.

 

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