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FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks talks Huawei and net neutrality on The Vergecast

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Can America trust Huawei?

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

On this week’s interview episode, Nilay is joined by Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks and Verge policy reporter Makena Kelly, on the heels of the agency’s recent announcement that it would likely approve the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. Commissioner Starks couldn’t say much about the proposed merger deal, but he had plenty to say regarding a host of other issues the FCC has the jurisdiction to chase.

Starks was officially confirmed by the United States Senate at the beginning of the year to serve as an FCC commissioner in the Democratic minority. Starks has only been a commissioner for a few months, but he’s already faced tough policy questions. Should Chinese telecommunications companies be allowed to operate in US networks? How could the agency ensure that carriers like AT&T and Verizon aren’t selling customer location data to third parties where it could get in the hands of criminals and bounty hunters?

Starks discussed these questions and more on this week’s interview episode of The Vergecast.

Below, is an excerpt of Starks discussing the national security and economic risks that come with allowing companies like Huawei access to US communications networks:


Last week Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner, called for national security agencies to investigate the Chinese telecommunications companies that are already operating on our networks. You seem to kind of agree with him on that.

I do. Of course, this is all subject to getting, you know, DOJ and team telecom and the executive agency to weigh in on whether they see the same kind of national security concerns.

But yes, two weeks ago we did not allow [a license to operate within the US] for China Telecom. [Ed. note: Commissioner Starks misspoke. It’s actually China Mobile and not China Telecom that was denied, which we’ve reflected in transcript below.]

Most critically, if [China Mobile] had been the lowest-cost carrier, they could have, in fact, carried some US government agency communications. The executive agency told us national security concerns that they have — which I agreed with — we’re not going to be able to allow them to operate in the US. So China Telecom and China Unicom are the two additional entities that Commissioner Carr had mentioned, and it sounds like the chairman is planning to bring those licenses before us, and I assume we would have the same standard that we would apply.

So you think it’s appropriate here. There are other lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are even calling Huawei a spy agency. You think this is an appropriate measure for the FCC to get involved with?

I think it is extremely important. It is incumbent upon us. We have a distinct role to serve in protecting our communication networks under the defense of national security as well as the safety of life and property. I think it is extremely important for us to step in to the full extent of our authority.

Prior to the ‘96 Communications Act, we very much had a network where there were a number of well-established carriers that trusted each other. It really was analogous to the feel of a small town where folks leave their doors open at night because there’s so much trust in the interconnections that happen there.

Obviously, now with technology, the neighborhood has grown. It’s more like a city now. And of course we have significantly more connections, more vulnerabilities. A significant number of carriers do have very good security mechanisms in place, but there are certainly actors out there that would take advantage of vulnerabilities, and the kind of wistful small town feel of a well-established network is more nostalgic now.

By 2025, there are going to be over 25 billion IoT devices that are connected to the network. We have to be focused and fit into our national security role.

Over the weekend Google decided to revoke Huawei’s Android license. Is this kind of the role you see private industry playing?

Well, that’s a little bit muddled.

They got named onto the blacklist by the Commerce secretary. We have seen within the last 24 hours that the Commerce secretary has kind of softened that a little bit because that is going to have such an impact on so many consumers that have Huawei devices. Are they going to get Android patches? Are they going to still be in the Android ecosystem? The reverberations are significant, and so just within the last 24 hours that has been tamped down a little bit. Although the executive order by the president does, over the long term, still stand.

What Google is doing seems to get into a little bit more of kind of the Commerce lane of trade and whether we’re going to allow private actors to have agreements with Huawei and some of those other companies, but what I’m really focused on is making sure that we have a secure network as possible and that goes to these licenses with Chinese carriers.

This goes to the supply chain notice for proposed rule-making that we have before us, [which] essentially means the Universal Service Fund. It’s about a $9 or $10 billion fund that we administer at the FCC, [and the question is] whether that fund is going to allow government dollars to flow to some of these Chinese companies. That’s something that the FCC certainly has authority on.

And then figuring out, how we can step into our national security lane even more. Something that I think we actually really need to be focused on is that there are a significant number of small rural carriers and we’re still figuring out the scope of this that actually do have some of this Chinese infrastructure in their network right now. And we need to find a way to, you know, find it, fix it, and I think fund the remediation aspect of that right.

How do we approach remediating that and changing the infrastructure?

That’s the question that I’m thinking through, that a lot of folks are starting to think through. I know a number of senators on the Hill are also very focused on this. The executive order, the National Defense Authorization Act also tells us that going forward, prospectively, we need to make sure that we’re not allowing some of this Huawei and Chinese infrastructure that could have backdoors and their software built into it.

That’s the question at the heart of this. Do you take it as a given that Huawei equipment has backdoors?

I don’t take it as a given. I take it in the sense of having had national security folks who have specifically told me how they think about it, what our exposure is, what our risks are, and how seriously they take the possibility of backdoors in our network.

Obviously Huawei has lots of equipment in Europe, they’re saying “Look, we’re passing all the tests from America’s allies. Why don’t you trust us?”

And this gets into the trade-off, and frankly how some of these small rural carriers have thought about this. Since 2012, 2013, and certainly in 2018, there have been clear unofficial warning shots that the US is growing more uncomfortable with allowing Huawei and ZTE to have their infrastructure here.

We allowed some of those small rural carriers to make the business decision themselves on where they were going to come out on Huawei being the cheapest, but the highest quality. Where were they on the spectrum of national security and privacy versus being the cheapest cost provider? Obviously, that’s a business decision.

And that’s something they’ve told us. We’ve talked to lots of rural carriers and they say “Our costs are going to skyrocket now.” When you talk about equity, that’s a big piece of it.

Now that we have the executive order that was issued just last week, I think it is something that I’m truly focused on right now.

I’m focused on it. I have my team focused on it. We’re thinking through the scope of this problem, how much of this infrastructure is going to be at issue, how much is it going to cost. “Rip and replace” is what some of the national security folks call it.

It is a matter of getting, holistically, our head around that we know that we’re not allowed to bring this in prospectively, but retrospectively we know that we have some of this [infrastructure] in the ground. I think if the national security concern is there, we have to focus on that aspect of this as well.

And that concern is there.

It’s very much there for me, and I know it is also a concern of a number of folks on the Hill. How are we going to remediate the national security infrastructure that we already have in our networks, in particular with some of these small rural carriers?

What could what Huawei do to fix it? Is there a way for that company to get your trust back or the government’s trust back?

This is a whole-of-government issue. I am that decision-maker in a certain way, but I am not globally that decision-maker. My sense, as I sit here today, is that it is very tough to mitigate some of these vulnerabilities. When you’re talking about having this company potentially allowing a backdoor for potential Chinese spying. I think that’s very hard to mitigate.

Correction, May 22nd: Added inline notes to transcript to clarify that China Mobile was denied an operating license by the FCC, not China Telecom.