For the second time in recent weeks, Congress is looking to spend $1 billion or more to help make the Huawei problem go away.

The Huawei problem – in the view of the Trump administration and many in Congress – is that the China-based maker of communications equipment has uncomfortably close ties to the Chinese government, and thus the use of its equipment poses unacceptable security risks to U.S. national security, and to worldwide information networks.

Just since 2018, Congress has barred the Federal government from buying Huawei products, the Trump administration issued an executive order restricting the ability of U.S. firms to sell goods to the Chinese firm, and Congress has debated legislation that would bar Huawei equipment from U.S. 5G wireless networks, and block U.S. companies from doing business with the company.

Most recently, a bipartisan group of senators with national security bona fides introduced legislation that would provide up to $1.25 billion to support “Western-based alternatives” to Huawei, and ZTE, another China-based equipment maker also alleged to have too-close ties to the Chinese government. Senators backing the measure – the “Utilizing Strategic Allied Telecommunications Act” – include Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the panel.

Most of that funding – $750 million – would come from proceeds of spectrum auctions conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to finance an open-architecture model (O-RAN) fund that the senators said would spur “movement towards open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies, funding innovative, ‘leap-ahead’ technologies in the U.S. mobile broadband market.” The fund would be managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), with input from the FCC, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Another $500 million would come from a new Multilateral Telecommunications Security Fund that would aim to “accelerate the adoption of trusted and secure equipment globally.”

“We need to move beyond observing the problem to providing alternatives for U.S. and foreign network operators,” said Sen. Warner. “Every month that the U.S. does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G, while U.S. and Western companies and workers lose out on market share and jobs … It is imperative that Congress address the complex security and competitiveness challenges that Chinese-directed telecommunication companies pose,” he said.

“When it comes to 5G technology, the decisions we make today will be felt for decades to come. The widespread adoption of 5G has the potential to transform the way we do business, but also carries significant national security risks,” said Sen. Burr. “Those risks could prove disastrous if Huawei, a company that operates at the behest of the Chinese government, military, and intelligence services, is allowed to take over the 5G market unchecked.”

The latest Senate Huawei bill follows House approval last month last month of a bill that would provide $1 billion to smaller-sized private sector communications service providers to remove from their networks equipment purchased from Huawei and ZTE, and replace that gear with equipment that does not pose a threat to U.S. national security. That bill – the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act (H.R. 4998) – won broad bipartisan backing in the House. It does not yet have a Senate companion measure, but would appear ripe to attract one.

In related news, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., this week introduced legislation that would prohibit the U.S. from “sharing intelligence with countries that allow Huawei to operate their 5G networks.” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., debuted a similar bill in the Senate on Jan. 8.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.