Earlier this year, an American An F-22 pilot shot down a huge balloon who had made his way through the heartland of the United States with the ability to spy on American military installations. We join government leaders in condemning the intrusion and in our call to hold the Chinese government accountable for its brazen violation of our airspace and sovereignty. But as the Chinese government’s spy balloon captures our national attention, we cannot lose sight of the grave espionage threat that already exists within our borders. Due to a lack of federal funding for a critical national security program under the Secure and Reliable Communications Act – commonly known as “rip and replace” – US telecommunications networks remain riddled with insecure equipment manufactured by companies beholden to the Chinese government that can do everything from capture Americans’ data to disrupt critical US Strategic Command communications.
The potential consequences of widespread infiltration of US networks by Chinese state-linked companies Huawei Technologies Ltd. and ZTE Corporation have been documented by national security agencies since 2017, and they pose a much more immediate and invasive national security risk than spy balloons. The conclusions of the American intelligence and national security community are clear: this equipment provides the Chinese government with an entry point to capture our conversations and harvest the treasure troves of data that we transmit on the airwaves every second that this data transits on a compromised network or other wireless system operating nearby. The equipment could also be used by the Chinese government to launch or amplify cyberattacks on civilian, critical or military infrastructure. Worse, it could even be exploited to interfere with or disrupt US military action, with the FBI concluding that the positioning of the technology could impact US strategic command communications regarding intercontinental ballistic missiles – our country’s nuclear arsenal.
The national security threat posed by Huawei and ZTE equipment in US networks is urgent. That’s why we and our colleagues in Congress and the FCC acted to stop sales of this equipment to U.S. telecommunications companies in 2019 and soon after we enacted the Secure and Reliable Communications Network Act and Network Security Guarantee Act. Together, these laws created a reimbursement program for small, rural telecommunications providers to “pull and replace” compromised Chinese-made equipment from their networks.
Huawei and ZTE equipment is subsidized by the Chinese government, reducing the cost in exchange for its lack of security. This reimbursement program is therefore essential to rid our networks of this insecure technology, as these are overwhelmingly small rural networks in underserved communities that have relied on inexpensive Huawei and ZTE equipment to provide connectivity. Take Northern Michigan University’s Education Access Network, which serves students and families in Michigan’s rural and chronically underserved Upper Peninsula. These small networks, many of which are located near sensitive military sites, are often operated by vendors who cannot afford to replace such equipment themselves. This is where Congress was supposed to step in.
Unfortunately, when Congress provided funding for this program, it based its $1.9 billion allocation on 2019 cost estimates that did not anticipate a global pandemic and accompanying increased spending. . The initial estimates also did not take into account the cost of destroying the equipment and confirming its destruction – an essential step to avoid jeopardizing the supply chain via secondary or black markets. The FCC now confirms that in 2022 dollars, rural providers will have to pay approximately $5 billion to completely remove, destroy and replace Huawei and ZTE equipment from their networks.
This leaves a shortfall of approximately $3.1 billion, which is undoubtedly a significant expense. But the cost of failing to secure our networks is an order of magnitude higher. What happens if the shortfall is not resolved? In the absence of legislative action by July 15, 2023, the FCC will be required to reimburse tear and replacement projects to only 40 cents on the dollar. This will in some cases mean indefinite delays in securing our networks and rationing wireless service across rural America. This problem is compounded by the fact that for providers who cannot afford to cut and replace without a higher subsidy, they will lose access to the Universal Service Fund, an essential lifeline for providers operating in underserved areas. Indeed, turning a blind eye to the program will force rural communities to live with a dire choice: precarious services ripe for surveillance or no service at all. This is unacceptable.
That’s why we make this call on behalf of rural communities and our national security: Let China’s spy balloon incursion be the catalyst that will allow us to eliminate the threat from government intelligence operations once and for all. already integrated into our telecommunications infrastructure. For the safety of every American, Congress must act now to fully fund the “rip and replace.”
Gary C. Peters is a United States Senator from Michigan, member of the Commerce Committee, Armed Services Committee, Appropriations Committee, and Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Geoffrey Starks is a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.
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