Top U.S. government officials delivered a blunt message at an Oct. 31 hearing on 5G and supply chain security: the United States is behind on confronting the threats to next-generation networks.

“The truth is we are facing well-resourced challenges to our 5G leadership from every direction,” warned Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, in her opening statement before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “And, so far, we do not have a comprehensive national plan in place with a fully coordinated interagency response to meet that challenge.”

Meanwhile, the government will have to play defense on an larger field, an official testified.

“When we move to 5G, the risk profile changes dramatically, really increasing the cyberattack surface area so more parts will become critical ... I think a vast array of technology that’s not considered critical will become so in the 5G network,” said Robert Strayer, deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international communications and information policy at the Department of State.

Fears swirl across federal government about 5G technology in relation to Chinese tech giants, specifically Huawei and ZTE. With the transformational capabilities that the government officials expect from 5G, they have grave concerns about the Chinese companies turning data to the Chinese government or using 5G tech in U.S. or allied networks for the Chinese government’s gain.

“Much of this equipment lies next to military bases in this country," said Rosenworcel. “It’s insecure and we need to move it out.”

There’s just one significant problem underlying the government’s recognition of the dangers the technology poses: it doesn’t know how much — or where — the telecom giants’ products are in the United States.

The FCC is currently seeking comment to identify where and the extent of the Chinese tech is out there. It plans to vote Nov. 19 on a proposed rule that will ban the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which provides broadband to rural areas, from buying ZTE and Huawei products.

The notice from the FCC would also require all carriers who participate in the USF fund to take out all technology in their products that originate from Huawei and ZTE.

“We have to know where it is before can we decide what dollars to make available to help rip and replace it," said Rosenworcel.

The cost could be steep, Rosenworcel said, with cost estimates of rip-and-replace landing between $700 million and $1 billion.

Problems beyond the borders

Concerns multiply when discussing the implications of Huawei and ZTE products in the networks of the United States’ allies. The Chinese telecom providers’ technologies are cheap. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said that several European nations are considering using Huawei to build out their 5G networks, choosing them over European-based providers.

Strayer, who has traveled the world talking to foreign governments about 5G and risk, said that several governments have said they won’t allow Huawei and ZTE products in the “core” of their network, but noted that raises questions of why they would let these providers operate on the “edge” of their network.

To advance the United States’ security, Strayer called on the senators to have conversations with their counterparts in foreign governments, arguing that “this is really about our fundamental values and about geopolitical threats.”

“We’re going to have to start thinking about the technologies that allow us to be secure in a world where we have to connect to insecure networks,” Rosenworcel said.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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