The world needs to work together to secure its 5G communications networks, keeping “high-risk” vendors out of them, Ajit Pai, chair of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said. Pai signalled towards the formation of a global alliance against the use of equipment from such vendors — all of which are Chinese — to ensure the security of 5G infrastructure. He was speaking at CyFy 2020, an annual conference organised by the think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), on Friday.

Pai noted that companies building 5G networks across the world have an economic incentive to address security concerns and find alternatives to high-risk vendors. “Long-term costs of using insecure equipment are likely to outweigh any short-term savings. Making the right choices early on in the planning of network architecture and deployment is much easier, and ultimately much cheaper, than trying to correct mistakes once network construction and operation is underway,” he said. This reasoning has also been used by Australia, which was one of the first countries to pull the plug on Huawei in 2018.

The FCC chairperson noted that most of the world’s equipment used in 5G networks currently comes from Huawei. “This has raised concerns, especially because Chinese laws subject to its jurisdiction to comply with requests from the country’s intelligence services.”

The US government’s suspicions regarding Huawei are well documented. Last year, it added Huawei and ZTE to its “entity list”, acting on years of reports from its intelligence agencies about Chinese spying. This effectively banned American companies from having business transactions with Huawei and ZTE. Huawei’s pariah status was further cemented when the US government declared the company as a “national security threat” in July 2020.

Pai noted that the opposition to Chinese vendors has become a global phenomenon. He referred to the United Kingdom’s July 2020 decision to remove Huawei from its 5G networks by 2027. Similar steps have also been taken by Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Greece, he said. With respect to India, he noted the example of Reliance Jio — which has declared that it does not use any Chinese components in its networks.

India is yet to take an official stand on 5G, although it has imposed its own bans on Chinese tech and software in recent times. Both countries were involved in border clashed, after which India banned 224 Chinese-owned apps including TikTok, PUBG, Camscanner, Shein, Clash of Kings and WeChat citing “national security” reasons. On 5G, while both Huawei and ZTE are currently allowed to participate in trails, the government is said to be reconsidering this decision.

To promote vendor diversity, telcos should use interoperable networks: Pai

“Unfortunately, the lack of vendor diversity in the global market can make it challenging for some carriers to find cost-effective alternatives. The good news is that technological innovation has provided a new path to address these concerns,” he said. Pai explained that traditionally, wired architecture relied on a closed architecture, where a single vendor supplied all components in it. Now, he suggested, telecom companies could use interoperable, standards-based networks known as Open Radio Access Networks (OpenRAN). He added that FCC had recently conducted a meeting on the use of OpenRAN, attended by government and industry leaders, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Reliance Jio president Mathew Oommen.

The FCC chairperson ultimately noted that efforts to secure 5G networks couldn’t be confined within any country. “We are in this together. … The FCC and the entire US government stands ready and is willing to work with all of you to build a brighter digital future for citizens around the world.” This basically means that the US will help any country that wishes to eliminate high-risk (read: Chinese) vendors from their 5G network infrastructures.

Read more: