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FCC wants to stop spending on gear from companies that ‘pose a national security threat’

The U.S. maneuvers against China’s tech giants continue today with an official announcement from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the agency may soon ban purchasing anything from companies that “pose a national security threat.” Huawei, ZTE and other major tech manufacturers aren’t named specifically, but it’s clear what is meant.

Pai lists the risk of backdoored routers, switches and other telecoms equipment as the primary threat; Huawei and ZTE have been accused of doing this for years, though hard evidence has been scarce.

The proposal would prohibit any money from the FCC’s $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund, used for all kinds of projects and grants, to be spent on companies beholden to “hostile governments.” Pai mentioned the two Chinese giants in a previous letter describing the proposed plan.

Both companies in question have strenuously denied the charges; perhaps most publicly by Richard Yu, CEO of the company’s consumer business group, at CES this year.

But warnings from U.S. intelligence services have been ongoing since 2012, and Congress is considering banning Huawei equipment from use by government entities, saying the company “is effectively an arm of the Chinese government.”

Strong ties between these major companies and the Chinese government are hard to deny, of course, given China’s particularly hands-on methods in this sort of thing. Ironically, however, it seems that our spy agencies are so sure about this in great part because they themselves have pushed for and occasionally accomplished the same compromises of network infrastructure. If they’ve done it, they can be sure their Chinese rivals have.

The specifics of the rule are unknown, but even a relatively lax ban would likely be a big hit to Huawei and ZTE, which so far have failed to make a dent in the U.S. phone market but still manufacture all kinds of other telecommunications gear making up our infrastructure.

The draft of the new rule will be published tomorrow; the other commissioners have it now and are no doubt reading and forming their own opinions on how to improve it. The vote is set for April 17.


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