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An agreement between the agencies aims to encourage the use of trusted networks and interoperable infrastructure.
The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Agency for International Development are partnering to further U.S. efforts to sever all connection to equipment vendors from China and implement open-interface technology for next-generation networks in developing countries.
The agencies released a memorandum of understanding Wednesday outlining roles and responsibilities toward accomplishing the FCC’s 5G Fast Plan, USAID’s Digital Strategy and the administration’s National Strategy to Secure 5G.
Objectives listed in the memo include “promote the growth of secure, trusted 5G networks that are free of untrusted vendors in all parts of the network [and] promote access to open, interoperable, reliable and secure digital infrastructure.”
Equipment from Huawei and ZTE is significantly more affordable than the limited alternatives available from U.S. allies. But the FCC has designated the companies national security threats based on classified input from the intelligence community and a Chinese national security law that would require them to share information with that government as requested.
On Wednesday the U.S. position got a boost as 40-plus lawmakers from the European Union wrote to national telecom ministers describing the two companies as high-risk. In addition to concerns that the companies would aid espionage attempts—which the Chinese vendors refute—the EU lawmakers echo some in the U.S. who argue Chinese government subsidies have made competition for global market share with alternatives Nokia and Ericsson unfair.
Now the FCC and USAID are formalizing an effort to take the U.S. campaign to emerging markets.
“The agreement affirms the following goals and objectives: promoting competition, innovation, and investment in broadband services and facilities within developing countries; boosting the U.S. economy by ensuring a competitive framework for evolving communications networks and services in emerging markets; encouraging the highest and best use of spectrum domestically and internationally; and strengthening the defense of our Nation's communications infrastructure,” according to a USAID press release.
USAID’s role would include working with federal contractor Development Alternatives Inc. to embed advisers with receptive governments in developing countries. The advisers would provide technical assistance through the Promoting American Approaches to [Information Communications Technology] Policy and Regulation program at the agency’s global development lab.
The agency also commits to making a business case for open radio access networks. The principles of the O-RAN Alliance advocate doing away with proprietary mechanisms and enlisting software to make network components from various vendors work together. That would create more of an advantage for telecom operators purchasing the technology, but the idea has been pooh-poohed by Attorney General William Barr as “pie in the sky.”
USAID will “establish connections with companies that are building these [O-RAN] solutions with developing-country governments to demonstrate the viability of these secure network alternatives,” the MOU states.
The FCC is not yet sure it will have the necessary funding to oversee a program that requires smaller rural U.S. internet providers rip and replace any untrusted equipment from their networks. But, according to the memo, to the extent funds are available, the agency intends to provide technical and legal experts to participate in training sessions with governments of developing countries.
The FCC will also train internal USAID staff on the importance of secure digital infrastructure as part of the international development’s agency’s mission of facilitating other countries' journey to self-reliance.
“I know that our international partners look to us for 5G leadership in terms of technology, best practices, public policy, and establishing international standards,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release. “This agreement will help ensure we can continue to meet those expectations, especially in developing countries.”
Mariam Baksh reports on the development of federal cybersecurity policy for Nextgov.