The U.S. State Department and DoD are moving to expand bans on the use of telecommunications equipment by Chinese firms, Huawei and ZTE, for 5G networks, as the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is proposing an alternative, open interface approach.

On Aug. 5, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the State Department’s Clean Network approach banning Chinese equipment from “untrusted vendors,” such as Huawei and ZTE, would expand to include five new lines of effort, including mobile phone applications, Cloud-based systems, and undersea cables.

“Momentum for the Clean Network program is growing,” Pompeo said in a statement. “More than thirty countries and territories are now Clean Countries, and many of the world’s biggest telecommunications companies are Clean Telcos. All have committed to exclusively using trusted vendors in their Clean Networks.”

“The United States calls on our allies and partners in government and industry around the world to join the growing tide to secure our data from the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] surveillance state and other malign entities,” he said. “Building a Clean fortress around our citizens’ data will ensure all of our nations’ security.”

In the Federal Register last month, DoD, NASA and the General Services Administration proposed a similar expansion of bans on Huawei and ZTE equipment to implement section 889(a)(1)(B) of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019, P.L. 115-232–a ban that is to take effect for federal contractors on Aug. 13.

“An advantage of the U.S. State Department’s Clean Network Initiative is that it now includes critical infrastructure such as cloud-based systems and undersea cables,” Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow with CNAS’ technology and national security program, wrote in an Aug. 10 email. “Such a comprehensive approach will be necessary to help ensure that telecommunications infrastructure is secure, robust, and resilient. Not constructive is rhetoric such as “Clean fortress,’ which is reminiscent of China’s ‘Great Firewall,’ and what will often be perceived as a heavy-handed American approach focused merely on excluding Chinese companies. Both could alienate important allies such as Germany. What is missing is an affirmative agenda that offers choice and focuses on innovation.” 

Rasser is the author of a recent CNAS report, Open Future: The Way Forward on 5G.

“Given the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to exercise control over Huawei, there is justifiable concern over data integrity on networks that deploy Huawei equipment,” according to the report. “More serious is the potential to use 5G equipment as a vector to cripple critical infrastructure. Such risk is not only about communications—5G will be the backbone of controls needed for power grids, water supplies, and transportation infrastructure. Despite this, the United States has had only limited success convincing its allies to join it in banning Huawei.”

“The United States has the opportunity to regain momentum by taking a fresh approach to 5G in the aftermath of the pandemic,” the report said. “In addition to the broader appreciation for the criticality of reliable communication networks, Beijing’s coronavirus cover-up and clunky attempts at soft power have hardened public opinion toward China around the world. The economic fallout of the pandemic will likely slow 5G deployments globally, curtailing the urgency with which many operators approached the issue. At the same time, the first commercial projects centered on technological alternatives to the predominant 5G approach are being deployed. This confluence of events presents the United States and like-minded countries an opening to promote an alternative approach that could lead to a paradigm shift in the industry: wireless infrastructure built on a modular architecture with open interfaces.”

Rasser wrote in his email that “such an agenda should include promoting wireless infrastructure based on open interfaces—the ability of equipment from any vendor to work with that of another.”

“A restructured industry based on open interfaces would directly address the prevailing concerns over untrusted vendors such as Huawei and the broader inefficiencies of the industry by promoting a vibrant and competitive ecosystem,” he wrote. “Currently, Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung develop their own solutions to real-time digitizing of radio signals. Because these vendors take different approaches, their equipment is not readily interoperable with each other. One of the reasons for this is that these manufacturers do not want to disclose their designs to each other–a lack of visibility into the inner workings that creates a ‘black box.'”

Under an “open interfaces” approach, vendors would use common, published protocols and interface specifications to provide software that runs on off-the-shelf, “white box” hardware, such as servers and network switches.

“Should a telecommunications industry centered on open interfaces become the norm, then all the differentiation is in the software,” Rasser wrote in his email. “Huawei and ZTE are very much opposed to this because it upends their business model and undermines their unfair, competitive advantage. They’d have to become mainly software companies to compete in the industry. I’d still recommend not running Huawei or ZTE software on a network, but risk management and increased security benefits would be there for those who choose to do so.”