New telecoms law designed to keep Huawei permanently out of US networks

  • Bi-partizan legislation allocates cash to development of Open RAN
  • "Home-grown" 5G technologies to fill the gap left by Huawei
  • Objective is to ensure the Chinese company has no place in US networks - or in other western countries
  • New law gets full support of US manufacturers

With American society and politics so utterly riven with mutual distrust and animosity it makes quite a change to be able to report on rare bi-partizan agreement in the US House of Representatives which has just resulted in the unanimous passing of a new telecoms law that not only emphasises the burgeoning importance of Open RAN but specifically allocates three quarters of a billion dollars to its development across the nation. The new legislation. passed unanimously, is designed explicitly and specifically to encourage US companies to develop and deploy home-grown 5G technologies to take the place of those that, prior to its banning from US networks, would have been provided by Huawei of China.

The "Utilizing Strategic Allied Telecommunications Act 2020" sets aside US$750 million for the domestic development of Open RAN. The funds will be made available as grants that will be administered and managed by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA sits within the US Department of Commerce and is legally required to inform and advise the President on telecoms and information policy issues. It also has a role as a policymaker and in recent years its main focus has been on the expansion of broadband access and adoption across the country and ensuring that the Internet continues to foster scientific and economic growth.

Open RAN is regarded as strategically important because of its open standards approach and the provision of open interfaces for multi-vendor network equipment interoperability and the new law specifies that the NTIA grants must go to companies providing technology "that will enhance competitiveness in the supply chains of Open RAN 5G Networks, accelerate the deployment of Open Network Equipment, and promote the inclusion of security features that enhance the integrity and availability of such equipment."

Politicians from both sides of the House hammer Huawei

Aimed directly at Huawei, the explicit over-arching purpose of the Act is to "reassert US and Western leadership by encouraging competition with Huawei that capitalizes on US software advantages and accelerate the development of an open-architecture mode that would allow for alternative vendors to enter the market for specific network components, rather than having to compete with Huawei end-to-end."

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat representing Virginia and the man who co-founded US wireless operator Nextel, is also the vice-chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Commenting on the importance of the new legislation, he didn't beat about the bush, saying, "Every month that the US does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G, while US and Western companies and workers lose out on market share and jobs. Widespread adoption of 5G technology has the potential to unleash sweeping effects for the future of internet-connected devices, individual data security, and national security. It is imperative that Congress address the complex security and competitiveness challenges that Chinese-directed telecommunication companies pose. We need to move beyond observing the problem to providing alternatives for US and foreign network operators."

Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who is the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence added, "When it comes to 5G technology, the decisions we make today will be felt for decades to come. The widespread adoption of 5G has the potential to transform the way we do business, but also carries significant national security risks. Those risks could prove disastrous if Huawei, a company that operates at the behest of the Chinese government, military, and intelligence services, is allowed to take over the 5G market unchecked. This legislation will help maintain America’s competitive advantage and protect our national security by encouraging Western competitors to develop innovative, affordable, and secure 5G alternatives."

A slightly more emollient view emphasising competition over confrontation, was voiced by Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who said, "The Trump Administration’s lecturing of our allies about the dangers of relying on the Chinese for 5G is no replacement for the development of 5G alternatives. This bill, which will supply the US government with resources to help the private sector create viable 5G alternatives from all ends of the supply chain, is a long overdue step in the right direction. As I’ve said over and over again, confronting China is not the same as being competitive with China."

Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio, (Republican. Florida), a member of the senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committee  asserted, "We are at a critical point in history for defining the future of the US - China relationship in the 21st century, and we cannot allow Chinese state-directed telecommunications companies to surpass American competitors. It is not only in our national security interests to support American competition in the 5G market, but it is also in our economic interests to continue to build and support an economy that leverages American strengths and creates American jobs in the industries of the future without relying on malign Chinese state-directed actors like Huawei and ZTE."

Another member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Michael Bennet (Democrat, Colorado) added, "We should not accept a world that is forced to rely on Chinese telecommunication companies to unlock the benefits of 5G and next generation wireless technologies. It is imperative for America’s competitiveness and security that we develop alternatives for US and foreign network operators. This $1 billion investment will send a strong, bipartisan signal that the United States is committed to developing viable, secure, and cutting-edge alternatives to China’s 5G technology while eliminating dependence on technology that poses real security threats."

And so it went on. Senator John Cornyn (Republican, Texas), even went so far as to echo the emotive language used by President Trump who refers to Covid-19 as "the Chinese plague"when he observed that "5G technology presents a host of opportunities to transform American telecommunications. By helping to spur innovations in 5G, we can inoculate ourselves against the threat posed by China and encourage the development of technology that is secure, affordable, and economically beneficial to our allies."

Broad support of US manufacturers and vendors

In other provisions, the new legislation requires that a $500 million Multilateral Telecommunications Security Fund be set up that, for a decade, will work with overseas allies to "accelerate the adoption of trusted and secure equipment globally and to encourage multilateral participation." Further, a transition plan will be created "for the purchase of new equipment by carriers that will be forward-compatible with forthcoming Open RAN equipment so small and rural carriers are not left behind."

Other sections of the new law call for an outward-looking approach to "increase US leadership in International Standards Setting Bodies by encouraging greater US participation in global and regional telecommunications standards forums and requiring the FCC write a report to Congress with specific recommendations". And finally, to ensure and "expand market opportunities for suppliers and promote economies of scale for equipment and devices by encouraging the FCC to harmonize new commercial spectrum allocations with partners where possible, thus promoting greater alignment with allies and driving down the cost of Huawei alternatives."

As news of the easy enactment of the new law was announced US manufacturers including AT&T, Juniper, Verizon and VMWare, unsurprisingly,  expressed satisfaction and support. Manoj Leelanivas, the Chief Product Officer at Juniper Networks probably best summed-up the US industry's response when he commented, "The development of open standards and deployment of open standards-based interoperable equipment are crucial to the building of secure 5G networks''. He added that the legislation will "boost R&D spending as well as US leadership in 5G."

No doubt Huawei will respond to the onslaught sometime soon but, as the Roman historian and biographer Suetonius quoted Julius Caesar, as saying as he and the Thirteenth Legion crossed the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC and initiated the sequence of events that resulted in the collapse of the Roman Republic, "Alea iacta est" ("the die is cast"). And so it is.

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