Of Patriots, Faith, Broadband & Huawei
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island -- "I'm a patriot," James Kail told a roomful of telecom executives here. Kail is the president and CEO of LHTC Broadband, a fiber-to-the-home provider across 68 square miles of Pennsylvania.
The question of Kail's patriotism came up during the annual fall trade show of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), during a well-attended session called "Let's Collaborate to Make America's Communication Networks Safer." The session was sponsored by China's Huawei. LHTC is one of Huawei's many customers among smaller US broadband providers.
The word "patriot" means someone who "vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors." As a patriot, Kail said he would rip Huawei's equipment out of his network and replace it with equipment from another vendor -- a potentially major financial setback for LHTC -- if Huawei's equipment really does represent a threat to the security of the US.
But does it? That's where the question of faith comes in.
Kail said FBI agents recently paid him a visit to explain that Huawei's equipment is not secure, and that LHTC should not use equipment from the vendor anymore. They did not provide evidence for their claims. Kail said he first engaged Huawei as a supplier in 2014, after the US government issued a report warning of the vendor, but he conducted his due diligence and concluded that the company's equipment did not pose a threat. But now, based on all the noisy opposition to Huawei among US officials, Kail is looking for another supplier for LHTC's next big fiber project.
"We can't take the risk" of using Huawei's equipment again, he said.
Guilty until proven innocent
Kail isn't the only person asking the US government for its evidence against Huawei. Other customers of the Chinese vendor have made similar statements. And just last week, Microsoft President Brad Smith told Bloomberg that when his company presses US officials to explain their Huawei ban, "oftentimes, what we get in response is, 'Well, if you knew what we knew, you would agree with us.' And our answer is, 'Great, show us what you know, so we can decide for ourselves. That's the way this country works.'"
A wide range of US officials continue to argue that Huawei's equipment does indeed represent a threat. Here at the CCA show, Democratic FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that "experts" believe the equipment made by Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers presents serious security vulnerabilities. "According to these experts, Huawei software does not have the same consistency from installation to installation as its competitors," Starks explained. "Programming variations make it difficult or impossible even for Huawei to know exactly what software is deployed in a given build and whether the equipment will accept software updates."
Continued Starks: "Security experts tell us that this 'bugginess' in Huawei software means that it has 'front doors' accessible by both the company and by bad actors familiar with exploiting inconsistencies and flaws in Huawei code. Moreover, it's not just the original software that's concerning -- Huawei systems are typically managed remotely with updates delivered from China. Many networks and network components get software updates as frequently as every week. Control over software updates and their delivery essentially amounts to control over an entire network."
Due to those concerns, Starks said he's embarking on a program called "Find it, Fix it, Fund it." He said he's working with members of the CCA and other providers to find Huawei equipment in US telecom networks, and then figure out what to do with it.
"Do we need to remove all suspect equipment with a 'rip and replace' approach, or can we somehow quarantine some equipment in certain parts of the network?" Starks asked. "While I am open to considering such mitigation measures as an initial approach, the long-term security of our networks will likely require complete removal of all equipment from suspect manufacturers. Nokia and Ericsson have said that they are willing to create products and financing options geared toward smaller carriers that need to replace Chinese equipment. They also claim that they have had handled similar replacement efforts with minimal customer disruption."
As for how to pay for all this ripping and replacing, a Senate bill would provide up to $700 million to US operators to replace Huawei equipment. Some though contend that $700 million won't be enough.
Meantime, Huawei continues to argue that its equipment doesn't pose a threat. Huawei's Andy Purdy represented the company during its "Let's Collaborate to Make America's Communication Networks Safer" session here. That's likely by design: Purdy worked at the White House and Department of Homeland Security on cybersecurity issues before joining Huawei in 2012, and he gives the company a gruff, no-nonsense and decidedly American presence on TV and at trade events.
Testing the faithful
What this all means is that US telecom providers such as Kail's LHTC have to have faith in the US government's argument that Huawei poses a national security risk. The word faith means "trust or confidence in someone." Frankly, that's a tall order given that President Trump has suggested that Huawei could be a bargaining chip in the larger US-China trade war.
"I have no idea who is telling the truth in this story. If Huawei really is a bad actor, let's get the proof out there and blacklist the hell out of it," wrote Thomas L. Friedman, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times and a winner of three Pulitzer Prizes. "If it's not so clear, the Trump team should at least explore [Huawei's] offer [to license or sell its technology to other vendors] to see if there is a pathway for Huawei to assure American intelligence experts and demonstrate good behavior."
Kail said he attended the CCA show here at the request of Huawei. Indeed, the CCA generally only represents wireless network operators, not fiber providers such as LHTC.
So is this all a nefarious cover-up by Huawei? Or is it part of a calculated public relations strategy by an unjustly persecuted vendor? More importantly, does the answer to this question involve patriotism or faith?
I don't know. But I will point out that these latest developments surrounding Huawei are happening in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence means "the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power."