Protecting National Security and Public Safety

Ajit Pai
Ajit Pai
Oct 28 · 6 min read

This week, I’m in Egypt for the World Radiocommunication Conference, where I’m working with international leaders to create a flexible regulatory framework that allows for continued growth of a multi-trillion-dollar global ICT industry. My work abroad will be focused on the building blocks of tomorrow’s networks. At the same time — and as an important complement to that work — the Federal Communications Commission is taking a major step back home to improve the security of those networks.

One key to secure communications is preserving the integrity of the equipment and services that are distributed throughout the network — what’s commonly known as the “supply chain.” U.S. officials have long expressed concern that certain foreign communications equipment providers pose a threat to the security of our communications supply chain. The concern is that hostile foreign actors could use hidden “backdoors” to our networks to spy on us, steal from us, harm us with malware and viruses, or otherwise exploit our networks. As a brand-new report on 5G security put it, “the most severe threats [are] posed by compromised confidentiality, availability and integrity associated with a State or State-backed actor.” And there are mounting reasons to believe that the Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security.

Recognizing this risk, today, I’m circulating an order that would prohibit the use of Universal Service Fund dollars to purchase equipment or services from any company — like Huawei — that poses a national security threat. Going forward, we simply can’t take a risk when it comes our networks and hope for the best.

In the process of examining this issue, I also determined that the FCC needs to take a look back, so to speak. That’s because some rural wireless carriers that receive USF funds have already installed Chinese equipment. So, I’m proposing that the Commission initiate a process to remove and replace such equipment from USF-funded communications networks. My plan calls first for an assessment to find out exactly how much equipment from Huawei and another Chinese company, ZTE, is in these networks, followed by financial assistance to these carriers to help them transition to more trusted vendors. We’ll seek public input on how big this “rip and replace” program needs to be and how best to finance it. I hope that my colleagues will join me in voting for these important steps to protect our national security at our November 19 meeting.

Shifting from national security to public safety, the Commission is taking action this November to close a critical gap in our 911 system. If you call 911 from your cell phone, today’s system does a good job of dispatching first responders to the caller’s street address. The problem is that it doesn’t provide the vertical location of where the call originated. That can be a big problem if you are calling 911 from a high-rise building like an office tower, and a delay of minutes in first responders finding you can be the difference between life and death. After years of study and testing, the Commission will vote in three weeks on adopting a vertical location accuracy metric of plus-or-minus three meters. This metric is supported by a broad-cross section of public safety organizations because it would more accurately identify a 911 caller’s floor level and is achievable. Helping first responders identify the vertical location of 911 callers will help them do their jobs even better and will ultimately save lives.

Just as we don’t want USF resources going to companies that pose a national security threat, we don’t want money from USF — or any other program the FCC administers — going to bad actors that misuse taxpayer dollars. The Commission already has rules in place to identify and bar from participation those who have abused or are likely to abuse USF. But these regulations don’t cover other programs, like those in the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS), and appear to have other shortcomings. That’s why I’m proposing that we update our rules for government debarment and suspension to make them consistent with guidelines from the Office of Management (OMB), which are broader, give more flexibility, and would enable us to take action more quickly. If adopted, these measures could not only help the Commission to fulfill its responsibility of ensuring that our programs are well managed, efficient, and fiscally responsible, but may also assist us in bridging the digital divide by ensuring that expenditures, including support for expanded broadband deployment, are directed in the first instance to good actors who will use them only for their intended purpose. The new rules would also encompass TRS and the National Deaf Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP).

One big theme of Commission meetings under my tenure as Chairman has been updating our rules to make sure they are consistent with changes in the marketplace. And our November meeting will be no different.

For starters, we’ll re-examine some of our rules stemming from the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which Congress passed to open monopoly local telephone markets to competition. These include requirements that local telephone companies (known as incumbent local exchange carriers) make portions of their networks available to competitors on an unbundled basis at regulated rates, and that they make certain services available for resale to competitors at regulated rates. But the communications landscape has transformed dramatically over the last 23 years. The voice and broadband marketplaces are filled with competition from a multitude of providers using a variety of technologies and offering capabilities and services unforeseen in 1996. So, I’ve shared with my colleagues a proposal to update our unbundling and resale rules to reflect these marketplace realities. This proposal would continue the FCC’s efforts to remove unnecessary regulatory burdens that can inhibit the deployment of next-generation networks and services. At the same time, recognizing that unbundling requirements may play a role where facilities-based competition is less likely to occur, my proposal would maintain rules regarding broadband-capable loops used to serve residential customers in rural areas.

Just as the FCC is trying to keep pace with changes in the market, so are AM radio operators, and the Commission wants to give them as much flexibility as possible to compete in the digital age. AM radio stations are currently authorized to operate with either analog signals or hybrid signals, which combine analog and digital signals. In three weeks, we will consider a proposal to allow AM licensees to broadcast using an all-digital signal on a voluntary basis. It would seek comment on topics ranging from the predicted benefits of all-digital AM broadcasting to the interference potential of all-digital stations, as well as addressing the technical standards for all-digital AM stations. And because all-digital broadcasting would be on a voluntary basis, AM operators would be the ones deciding if transitioning is right for them.

The Commission will also consider seeking comment on modifying or eliminating a rule that limits the amount of duplicative programming commonly-owned radio stations in a market can air. Since the current version of this rule was adopted in 1992, the number of AM and commercial FM stations has increased from 11,600 to 19,500, the number of noncommercial FM stations has more than doubled, and more than two thousand low power FM stations have been launched. In addition, radio stations now offer content on station websites and through mobile apps. With so much more competition and program diversity, which were the objectives of the radio duplication rule, we are seeking comment on whether the rule is still necessary and whether it should be modified or eliminated.

Rounding out our November meeting will be an item to update the way we finance our Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS). This service allows individuals who can speak but have difficulty hearing over the telephone to use a telephone and an IP-enabled device via the Internet to simultaneously listen to the other party and read captions of what the other party is saying. The service was launched a decade ago with an interim funding mechanism based only on the interstate telecommunications revenues of TRS contributors. As the program has grown, it’s clear that the current rules unfairly burden providers and users of interstate services, so I am circulating an Order that would expand the TRS Fund contribution base to include providers of intrastate voice communications services. Consumer groups have supported this expansion of the contribution base, and I believe this proposal would help to ensure the long-term sustainability of this vital service.

Between our work at WRC-19 and the Commission’s November agenda, we are positioned to make significant progress in the coming month toward improving the security of our advanced communications networks and expanding their reach and capabilities.

Ajit Pai

Written by

Ajit Pai

Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.