Navigating the Rip and Replace Quagmire: America’s Struggle to Secure its Telecom Networks

 

The “rip and replace” program launched by Congress to remove Chinese telecom equipment from American networks, mainly from Huawei and ZTE, has encountered considerable hurdles and delays. The program, which aims to improve national security by removing potential espionage and cyberattack risks, has struggled to make headway since it has proven to be more expensive and time-consuming than anticipated.

The program’s origins may be traced back to at least 2012, when intelligence officials expressed worry that Chinese technology infrastructure could provide backdoors into US networks. These worries centered mostly on leading equipment manufacturers Huawei and ZTE, which supplied equipment for various areas of US networks, sparking suspicions about Chinese government control. Efforts to reduce the use of Chinese equipment gained traction during the Trump administration. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restricted the use of federal monies to purchase Huawei and ZTE equipment in 2019, and the Secure and Trusted Communications Act demanded the removal of such equipment. The FCC was charged with developing a rip-and-replace reimbursement program with $1.9 billion in congressional appropriations.

However, the expenses of removing Chinese equipment have proven to be substantially more than anticipated. The FCC had authorized almost 200 applications from 85 carriers by July 2021, with requests totaling more than $4.6 billion, much exceeding the available budget. The compensation process has been sluggish and convoluted, adding to the program’s delay. Supply chain difficulties worsened by the pandemic have also had an impact on equipment replacement, resulting in shipment delays and price increases for carriers. The unexpected need for replacement equipment made it difficult for several carriers to place orders. The FCC has identified money as a significant concern, but other issues, such as the slowness of the reimbursement site and pandemic-related supply chain issues, have hampered the program even further. Many carriers are unlikely to fulfill their deadlines to replace Chinese equipment, and the program’s progress remains dubious in the absence of an extension. Attempts to get more financing for rip and replace have met with opposition in Congress. While some lawmakers have proposed reallocating funding to support the program, larger fiscal concerns have prevailed. Previously, Chinese telecom operators were accused of misrouting internet traffic, raising concerns about the security dangers linked with their equipment. While it is unclear whether these incidents were deliberate, experts are concerned that Huawei’s presence in US networks may permit espionage and data theft. Several investigations against Huawei’s actions in the United States, including the installation of equipment near military sites, have been begun. Given these concerns, removing Chinese telecom equipment is viewed as a critical step toward improving national security and reducing economic and technological theft risks.

However, the rip and replace program’s poor progress and financial issues have made it unclear whether carriers would achieve their equipment removal targets, leaving networks vulnerable to possible hazards.

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