China’s Huawei has become one of the world’s largest suppliers of telecom networking gear in part by undercutting its competitors’ prices, so those competitors were keenly interested in this week’s Congressional warning. The House Intelligence Committee is advising American companies not to buy network gear from Huawei or fellow Chinese vendor ZTE, potentially leaving the North American LTE market wide open for Sweden’s Ericsson and France’s Alcatel-Lucent, the two other giants of the telecom infrastructure industry.
Huawei says it suspects that Congress wants to “obstruct Chinese ICT companies from entering the US market.” “Almost every ICT firm is conducting R&D, software coding and production activities globally,” the company said in a statement. “They share the same supply chain, and the challenges on network security is beyond a company or a country.”
But even before potential security risks were highlighted by the U.S. government and the media, reports had surfaced about vulnerabilities in Huawei’s equipment. Security experts worry about “back door access” to routers, and these back doors are often found in the chips that power the equipment.
Huawei does not make all the chips for its equipment, but the company has been touting its current focus on semiconductor design, particularly chips for smartphones and tablets. The potential vulnerability of microprocessors was highlighted several years ago when a suspected “kill switch” hidden inside the silicon powering Syrian radar systems was credited with possibly enabling an Israeli attack on those systems.
Military communication was not a major focus of this week’s Congressional report, but experts say that if telecom networks are vulnerable, other networks will be as well. “The electrical infrastructure … the telephone infrastructure and the data networks infrastructure … they’re really coming together and coming together pretty quickly because of the economics for moving to all IP,” says Ray Bariso, VP of strategy at Ericsson. “Whether it’s managing the power or managing top secret communication or whether it’s managing enterprise intellectual property it’s really important to have the processes in place to manage how data is stored, where it’s coming from, how we’re securely transferring it, and especially for wireless networks how are you securing that transmission back and forth from site to site.”
Bariso says his company has the industry’s “broadest and deepest OSS/BSS portfolio,” and that security is of paramount importance here. “Really the OSS and BSS systems have all of the information about our customers, about the network, about the connectivity across the network,” Bariso says. “Cybersecurity is probably one of the biggest issues of concern for anyone in the information technology and communications technology industry.”
Alcatel-Lucent characterizes network security as a “critical requirement of all our solutions.” “You have to take it seriously,” company spokesperson Mary Ward told RCR Wireless News, noting that security is a cornerstone of software and network designs. Alcatel-Lucent has long made security a selling point, even offering security consulting and integration services to its customers.
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