The FCC today adopted rules for funding the replacement of telecom network equipment deemed to pose a security threat to telecom networks. In an order adopted today, the commission also addressed other responsibilities assigned to the commission in the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act adopted earlier this year.
In an announcement about today’s action, the FCC noted, however, that Congress still must appropriate sufficient funding to cover equipment replacement costs, which the commission has estimated at $1.6 billion.
Concerns that equipment from Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE might threaten the security of U.S. communications networks initially arose several years ago. More recently, the government investigated the companies more closely and has deemed them to be “covered” companies, meaning that the government believes the companies indeed pose a threat to network security.
Major U.S. telecom providers opted not to use equipment from those vendors when the initial concerns arose, but some smaller wireless providers deployed such equipment, primarily from Huawei.
Those providers serve largely rural areas and have some of their costs covered through the Universal Service Fund (USF) program. Previously, the FCC said such funding could no longer be used for equipment from the covered vendors. The order adopted today requires providers receiving USF to replace equipment from those vendors when Congress appropriates funding.
The order also establishes a Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program and includes rules for that program. Commission officials did not detail those rules at today’s monthly commission meeting where the order was adopted, but readers can read more about them in this draft of the order about the FCC secure telecom act responsibilities.
The O-RAN Opportunity
In their comments about the FCC action on the secure telecom act adopted earlier this year, several of the five FCC commissioners noted a potential opportunity for open radio access network (O-RAN) technology.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that providers today rely on just a few European or Chinese equipment vendors to build out their networks, and that market is shrinking.
“We can open this ecosystem to new providers by supporting the development of open RAN, which increases diversity and competition in communications equipment,” Rosenworcel said.
In doing so, she said, “we can make security a priority and we may be able to do so at lower cost, making this virtualized equipment more competitive with state subsidized equipment from Huawei and ZTE.”
The FCC should help this effort by establishing open test beds that bring together operators, vendors, vertical interests and government agencies, she said. She also argued that the U.S. should work with allies on these initiatives and that the government should initiate a broader program aimed at ensuring the overall security of 5G networks.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks argued that network operators that must replace covered equipment should be required to certify that they considered using O-RAN technology.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly noted that the secure telecom act requires the commission to develop a list of suggested replacements for equipment and services to be replaced. In doing so, he said “the commission must be careful not to tip the scales toward certain technology or companies or take advantage of the serious matter to pick winners and losers.”
O’Rielly noted that some providers will turn to O-RAN, “which I can see has other benefits.” But providers also should have the option of using more traditional technologies, he said.