FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr: ‘Glaring Loophole’ in US Policy on Tech From China
The products of Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE are used widely in America. But under Chinese law, “these companies basically have to fork over any information or data that the Communist Party might be seeking,” says Brendan Carr, a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The United States has implemented a “rip and replace” policy to remove such products from American systems—but there’s still a big loophole that remains.
Jan Jekielek: Commissioner Brendan Carr, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Brendan Carr: Good to join you again. Thanks for having me on.
Mr. Jekielek: Recently, you were talking about a security loophole in telecommunications equipment purchasing that I was frankly stunned to realize was actually still the case. Basically, from what you were saying, while the government is not allowed to purchase this equipment that has some national security considerations or threats, if private funds are used by carriers, they can purchase this exact same equipment. Tell me about this. This sounds crazy.
Comr. Carr: Huawei and ZTE have become basically household names in this country. The American people, I think, rightly now understand the national security threats posed by these entities, which are ultimately under the control of communist China. The American people would be surprised to learn that this gear continues to go into networks in the U.S., and the reason for that is we’ve taken a lot of action at the FCC over the last couple of years directed at Huawei and ZTE and making sure that stuff gets out of the networks.
If you look at some of our headlines, again, you’d assume that we put a blanket ban on that device-type of equipment going into network. The reality is slightly different. What we’ve done so far is say carriers cannot take federal dollars and use those federal funds to purchase this insecure gear or to keep this insecure gear in their networks. But our decisions have actually been very clear that you can continue to take that exact same equipment that poses a national security threat and you can put it in your network, as long as you’re only using private sector funds.
To me, that is a glaring loophole that makes no sense. The national security risk is not the source of funding used to purchase this network gear. The national security threat is the presence of that gear in our network. So I’ve called my colleagues at the FCC to close that glaring loophole and I’m hoping that they will agree with me very quickly.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s astounding to me because basically, we’re just talking about the exact same equipment and the only difference is how it’s funded.
Comr. Carr: You’re exactly right. My understanding is that a lot of this equipment was going in using these federal dollars. So the step we took was a good one, it was a necessary step. It may have even gotten at the lion’s share of the problem, but the reality is, we don’t know. We don’t know how much of this equipment is being purchased with private sector dollars. That’s why it’s important that we move forward quickly.
Mr. Jekielek: In this recent talk you gave, you actually talked about two years ago being at Malmstrom Air Force Base and how that experience basically gave you a bit of a rude awakening. It started you down the path of looking at these things and how equipment is procured for our carriers in America. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Comr. Carr: I think this is a story that really demonstrates to the American people in clear terms the threat posed by Huawei. To your point, a couple years ago, I was up in Great Falls, Montana. This is one of the northernmost communities in Montana and that’s where Malmstrom Air Force Base is located. I met Col. Jennifer Reeves there. In her control are thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles. These are missiles that can be launched thousands of miles around the globe and they are ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Surrounding these missile fields, which are spread across Montana over really hundreds of miles, there’s just nothing. It’s wheat fields and Big Sky Country. But dotted throughout that missile field are cell towers running on Huawei gear. Those towers have all sorts of equipment on them, including the capability to take pictures or potentially video surveillance as well. When you think about that, that gives you just one example of one of the many threats posed by having this Huawei gear spread across U.S. networks.
Again, people think, “It’s a rural area. Why do we care so much? There’s not a lot of communications there.” But that missile field gives you just one example of the potential dangers that come from having equipment from an entity owned and controlled by communist China right in America’s network.
Mr. Jekielek: What has happened with the equipment around Malmstrom Air Force Base, for example, since that trip two years ago?
Comr. Carr: We engage in a process at the FCC called rip and replace, where we’ve identified network gear like that around Malmstrom. Congress recently, in the last couple of months, appropriated funding for the FCC to use to support taking that gear out of the network. There’ll be a little bit of a process in terms of the timeline, but we now have a process in place to get that type of gear out of the network.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s heartening to hear, but it’s also kind of scary that it can take so long.
Comr. Carr: That’s right. This gear is spread across rural areas. Funding is a challenge. Frankly, the workforce is a challenge—making sure we have the skilled workforce in place to go to all these sites to take that equipment out. So it’s going to be a process, but I’m glad it’s one that we’ve now started.
Mr. Jekielek: What kinds of equipment would be replacing it then as part of the rip and replace, as you’re describing it?
Comr. Carr: There’s a range of secure gear that’s out there, whether it’s made by Samsung or Ericsson. We’re also entering this new phase of technology called “network virtualization,” which basically means rather than having to use a bespoke piece of hardware like Huawei or ZTE, you can do a lot of that same functionality now at the software layer. What’s great about that is that plays to an enduring American strength, which is that our companies are really good at software and coding. Not only do you have options now to put other hardware in to replace Huawei or ZTE, but you can also replace the functionalities with software, so that’ll be even more secure.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to dig more into the various threats caused by the use of this equipment in America or the networks of any free society. Before we do that, there’s a second element to what you were recently discussing and pushing for, essentially to remove Chinese forced labor from the supply chain or ensure that forced labor is removed. I want to get you to speak to that.
Comr. Carr: Recently, I call for two actions. The first is what we just talked about, which is closing this glaring loophole, so we don’t have any more Huawei or ZTE gear going into our network. The second piece of it has to do with forced labor, and this actually picks up on an idea that’s included in legislation that Senator Marco Rubio has been leading on in the Senate, in his Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Actually, a version of that bill passed the House last Congress.
The idea is this: virtually, no electronic device can come into the United States or lawfully be used in the United States unless the FCC signs off on it. So that’s everything from your remote control for your TV, your baby monitor, your cell phone, or this network gear. What I’ve said is we need to do a better job of making sure that none of that equipment that makes it into the U.S. is produced with slave labor.
We’ve said for decades, “never again,” when it comes to genocide, and yet, here we are with the genocide that the communist regime is engaging in, in the Xinjiang area. I think the FCC should use its authority to say unless equipment suppliers meet a very high bar for demonstrating that they have not included any slave labor in their electronic device at any point in the supply chain, we should be denying the approval of that equipment. Again, this tracks some of the ideas included in that legislation that Senator Rubio has led on.
Mr. Jekielek: Who is the onus on to demonstrate all of this?
Comr. Carr: Right now, there’s no check on this process at all. The FCC equipment authorization process basically looks and sees what frequency does this device operates on, what power level does it operate on. That’s where I think we need to insert into that process a check so we’ve put the burden on the entities applying to bring these devices into the U.S. to demonstrate to us that there isn’t slave labor anywhere in there. We cannot let communist China profit from its forced labor practices.
Mr. Jekielek: This is something you’ve been quite vocal about. I want to look at the threat that equipment like Huawei and ZTE actually pose. Of course, the way the software works and interacts is certainly part of that.
Comr. Carr: That’s right. There’s a range of threats that this type of equipment poses. We talked about one with Malmstrom. The other example I’ll give you is we had evidence in our record of a carrier, again, owned or controlled by communist China, that was taking internet traffic or data traffic that was originating in California and destined for delivery to Washington, D.C., and rerouted the traffic through Guangzhou, China. You don’t need to be a network engineer to understand that the California to Guangzhou to Washington, D.C. route is not the most efficient way you would route traffic, if what you cared about was simply delivering the data in an efficient manner.
The threat posed here is multifaceted. One thing that we’ve done, for instance, is we’ve prohibited China Mobile, which is one of the largest cellular carriers in the world, from interconnecting with networks in the U.S. We stopped that entity from getting into the network, which was good. When we did that, I called for the FCC to do a top to bottom review of every entity owned or controlled by communist China that is already in our networks based on decades-old authorizations.
We have started that process at the FCC and the good news is, we have proposed to take action to remove those existing authorities. So we’re on the right track at the FCC, we’re making progress. We just have a couple of loopholes left to close.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s this other element where essentially any company that’s in China, especially these large companies like Huawei, are either directly working with the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese military or are highly susceptible to being influenced by them. For example, Huawei has multiple Chinese Communist Party committees embedded within it. What is the FCC perspective on this?
Comr. Carr: There’s a unanimity of interest when it comes to “businesses” that operate in communist China. To your point, Huawei has a lot of members of that company who are members of the Communist Party of China. It’s table stakes to stay in operation there. We come at this with a very clear-eyed picture at the FCC. We understand that under China law, these companies basically have to fork over any information or data that the Communist Party might be seeking. We understand the threat that’s posed from these particular entities and that has informed our approach.
The idea that these entities like Huawei are going to engage in one set of practices in communist China, including race-based surveillance of Uyghurs and not engage in illicit practices in the U.S., just defies logic. The entire concept of “One country, two systems” is failing in China. The idea of “One company, two systems” is going to be equally untenable. That’s why we’re taking strong action on Huawei, ZTE, and others.
Mr. Jekielek: That actually speaks to something that one of the commissioners on the United States Commission on [International] Religious Freedom, Nury Turkel, recently mentioned. He talked about how human rights and security issues are always linked together. I’m curious about your perspective on that.
Comr. Carr: He’s right. Nury Turkel was at this event where I unveiled this two-prong approach. His personal story is really inspiring. Nury is a Uyghur American lawyer. He was actually born in a re-education camp in China during the Cultural Revolution. So when he speaks on these issues, he does so with far more authority than almost anyone else, and he’s right.
That’s why we need to look at our equipment authorization process. Not only if you’re using forced labor as I’ve called for, but if you have these entities that are engaging in race-based surveillance, whether it’s Huawei or others, I think that should be relevant to our review of whether you get to do business in the U.S. So I think that could also be part of an update to the FCC equipment authorization process.
Mr. Jekielek: I was really interested in how you describe this one company, two systems isn’t likely to be how things are going to work. That’s a very interesting way of putting it. We had an article in The Epoch Times yesterday talking about how numerous Falun Gong practitioners are actively saying that they’re being surveilled and harassed by what appear to be Chinese regime actors or Chinese regime-linked actors. Imagine if there’s actually technology in place in the American infrastructure to aid in that.
Comr. Carr: You’re exactly right. The digital surveillance state that is communist China is exactly that way, so that they can enforce a lot of these practices that they’re doing right now. There’s no reason why we need to allow that to be exported to the U.S. by having this equipment and spy gear effectively inserted into our network. There’s no world in which, as a practical matter, you can have a company like Huawei that engages in the race-based surveillance and other practices in China, and yet create a wall in which they’re going to respect Western values when they do business in America.
Mr. Jekielek: Assuming that you do get this loophole closed, that basically no funds can be used to get equipment that has this national security [risk] or deemed to have a national security risk by carriers anymore, does that actually solve the problem? What else exists out there that needs to be solved at the moment?
Comr. Carr: Step one is to close the loopholes so that no more of this gear is getting in. If you look at our equipment authorization process right now looking back to 2018, there are [about] 3000 applications that Huawei alone has submitted for review and approval. So we have to put an end to that.
The next step is to take a look at how much of that privately funded gear is in fact in our networks right now and what do we need to do to mitigate that threat or to take that equipment out again. For the gear that made it in with public funds, we now have funding available to remove it and we have to look at the options we have to address any of that privately funded gear that made it in.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re saying, they’re basically flooding the system with requests. That’s what I’m hearing here. Are any of these things being approved?
Comr. Carr: Yes, we are routinely approving these applications. Some of them are for updated applications for existing types of network gear, some of it is for their phones, but again, some of it is for new network gear. Again, we made great progress in stopping the purchase and use of this equipment with federal dollars, but it continues to make no sense to have this back door that is wide open for communist China, for Huawei, for ZTE, for Hikvision, to continue to get the FCC to approve their devices.
It’s not only approval for the U.S. The approval from the U.S. comes with a global imprimatur that some other countries will look at and say, you’re allowed to be in the U.S. networks, so go ahead and be in my network.
It’s also a bit inconsistent. We’ve gone around the world, led by Secretary Pompeo over the last couple of years, with this clean network initiative. We’ve told other countries, “You got to get this Huawei stuff out of your networks.” We didn’t say get it out of your network to the extent that it’s funded by your government. We said, “Get it out.” So we need to hold ourselves to that same standard that we’ve been rightfully taking abroad.
Mr. Jekielek: How has our approach changed over the last two years since the time that you were at the Air Force Base? How is our approach, our whole kind of philosophy in dealing with communist China change with respect to telecommunications equipment?
Comr. Carr: We move forward on the idea of ripping out and replacing that gear. Congress gave us the funding since then to engage in that effort. We blocked China Mobile from entering. We started the process to revoke the existing authorities of companies owned by the communist regime that are doing business here. So we have taken action on a lot of fronts, we’ve made a lot of progress, but now is not the time to let up. We got to continue to move forward.
The good news is this has largely been bipartisan, which is rare for something that takes place in Washington these days. If you go back three or four years ago though, standing up to communist China wasn’t bipartisan. In fact, it was bipartisan not to stand up to the regime, to appease the regime. But one of the things that the Trump administration did really changed the landscape and now across party lines in Washington there’s agreement that we need to show the strength and resolve to meet the threats posed by communist China. So that gives me hope. It encourages me that we will find a bipartisan consensus here at the FCC to continue the actions we’ve been taking over the last two or three years.
Mr. Jekielek: Commissioner Carr, any final thoughts before we finish up?
Comr. Carr: Thanks for having me on. I think the American public, particularly over the last year, has really woken up to the threats posed by communist China. While the FCC has engaged in very important steps over the last couple of years and made a lot of progress on addressing the national security threat, there are still things that remain to do. Again, chief among them is closing this glaring loophole that allows Huawei gear to continue to get into our networks. I think we need to start this new process to make sure that no forced labor is being used in any electronic device that we’re reviewing and approving at the FCC for use in this country.
Mr. Jekielek: Commissioner Carr, such a pleasure to have you on again.
Comr. Carr: Really enjoyed it. Thanks.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.