By U.S. Senators Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.)
Last year, Americans were shocked when a Chinese surveillance balloon flew coast-to-coast over the entire United States. The balloon caused a public frenzy of concern about why China was spying and what classified secrets they might have found.
But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been spying on us for over a decade in a much subtler way. Their surveillance tool of choice? Our cell towers.
Over the past several years, Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE have infiltrated our communications networks by selling their equipment to providers at artificially cheap prices. Over time, this has enabled Huawei and ZTE to significantly expand their equipment’s presence in networks throughout the rural United States. For providers in rural areas operating on slimmer margins, cheap gear was a welcome option, and the risks associated with that gear were not yet well known.
But these same rural areas, including in our home states of Nebraska and Colorado, also host several military bases and nuclear missile silos. Our intelligence agencies identified a pattern: communications providers were installing Chinese-made equipment on mobile wireless towers right next to American military assets. This made our domestic and defense communications vulnerable to Chinese espionage, since, under Chinese law, the CCP can compel companies to hand over their data records with little justification.
In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) responded to this national security threat by banning the purchase of any Huawei or ZTE equipment. That same year, Congress passed the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act to create a $1.9 billion reimbursement program to financially help eligible communications companies afford the costs to remove at-risk equipment and replace it — a process referred to as “Rip and Replace.”
These responses were important steps forward, but today, much of this Chinese gear remains in place.
Approximately 24,000 pieces of equipment still operate in 8,400 different locations near U.S. homes, small businesses, interstate highways, and university campuses. Nearly all of the 85 companies that received approval by the FCC for costs to rip and replace the untrusted equipment are still waiting for their full federal reimbursement. Communications providers, many of them smaller companies, can’t pay to replace these technologies without help.
It’s a vicious circle. Now, the FCC’s Rip and Replace Program faces a budget shortfall and communications providers simply do not have enough money to replace Chinese-made gear as mandated. That means they’ll either refrain from ripping it out or will be forced to shut down parts or all of their networks. And this is already beginning.
Essential communications service in the most rural areas is the first to go dark. Without swift action by Congress, thousands of Americans could lose their current mobile and landline phone services — services that are essential for work, emergencies and life in the 21st century.
That’s why we introduced the bipartisan Defend Our Networks Act. We need telecom companies to remove China’s surveillance infrastructure and replace it with secure equipment, but we can’t force these critical businesses to go broke in the process.
The Defend Our Networks Act would remove dangerous Chinese equipment and secure rural communications without network disruptions — all using funding already expended by Congress.
Chinese telecommunications equipment in U.S. networks is a sobering surveillance threat. The urgency of its removal cannot be understated. We did the right thing when Congress established the Rip and Replace Program at the FCC. It’s time we finish the job by passing the Defend Our Networks Act — before it is too late.