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U.S. government may finalize ban on federal contractors using equipment from Huawei this week

The Trump administration is set to finalize regulations this week that ban the United States government from working with contractors who use technology from five Chinese companies: Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera Communications, according to a Reuters report.

The ban was first introduced as a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents government agencies from signing contracts with companies that use equipment, services and systems from Huawei, ZTE, Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua, or any of their subsidiaries and affiliates, citing national security concerns.

Contractors were given until August 13, 2020 to comply, but immediately began voicing concerns over the ambiguity of the law.

More recently, the National Defense Industrial Association, a trade group, asked the government to extend the deadline because it said many contractors are currently dealing with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, reported Defense News.

Another challenge for federal contractors is that the companies on the blacklist are global market leaders in their respective categories, making it harder to find alternatives. For example, Huawei and ZTE are two of the largest telecom equipment providers in the world; Dahua and Hikvision are two of the biggest providers of surveillance equipment and cameras; and Hytera is a market leader for two-way radios.

The ban is one of many entanglements Huawei has had with the U.S. government since it was first identified as a national security threat, along with ZTE, in a 2012 Congressional report.

In May 2019, Huawei filed a legal motion against the provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, with the company’s chief legal officer stating that “politicians in the U.S. are using the strength of an entire nation to come after a private company.”

The United States, however, is not the only country with national security concerns about Huawei. On Thursday, for example, Reuters reported that Telecom Italia (TIM) decided to exclude Huawei from its tender for 5G equipment in Italy and Brazil, as the Italian government deliberates whether to bar Huawei’s tech from the country’s 5G network. Huawei told Reuters that “the security and development of digital Italy should be based on an approach grounded in facts and not baseless allegations.”

The United Kingdom is also reportedly considering a similar ban on Huawei in its 5G network.

Australia bans Huawei and ZTE from supplying technology for its 5G network

Australia has blocked Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment for its 5G network, which is set to launch commercially next year. In a tweet, Huawei stated that the Australian government told the company that both it and ZTE are banned from supplying 5G technology to the country, despite Huawei’s assurances that it does not pose a threat to national security.

We have been informed by the Govt that Huawei & ZTE have been banned from providing 5G technology to Australia. This is a extremely disappointing result for consumers. Huawei is a world leader in 5G. Has safely & securely delivered wireless technology in Aust for close to 15 yrs

— Huawei Australia (@HuaweiOZ) August 22, 2018

Earlier today, the Australian government issued new security guidelines for 5G carriers. Although it did not mention Huawei, ZTE or China specifically, it did strongly hint at them by stating “the Government considers that the involvement of vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from foreign government that conflict with Australian law, may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect a 5G network from unauthorized access or interference.”

Concerns that Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese tech companies will be forced to comply with a new law, passed last year, that obligates all Chinese organizations and citizens to provide information to national intelligence agencies when asked have made several countries wary of using their technology. Earlier this month, the United States banned the use of most Huawei and ZTE technology by government agencies and contractors, six years after a Congressional report first cited the two companies as security threats.

In its new security guidelines, the Australian government stated that differences in the way 5G operates compared to previous network generations introduces new risks to national security. In particular, it noted the diminishing distinctions between the core network, where more sensitive functions like access control and data routing occur, and the edge, or radios that connect customer equipment, like laptops and mobile phones, to the core.

“This new architecture provides a way to circumvent traditional security controls by exploiting equipment in the edge of the network – exploitation which may affect overall network integrity and availability, as well as the confidentiality of customer data. A long history of cyber incidents shows cyber actors target Australia and Australians,” the guidelines stated. “Government has found no combination of technical security controls that sufficiently mitigate the risks.”

Last year, Australia introduced the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms (TSSR), which takes effect next month and directs carriers and telecommunication service providers to protect their networks and infrastructure from national security threats and also notify the government of any proposed changes that may compromise the security of their network. It also gives the government the power to “intervene and issue directions in cases where there are significant national security concerns that cannot be addressed through other means.”

Huawei’s Australian chairman John Lord said in June that the company had received legal advice that its Australian operations are not bound to Chinese laws and he would refuse to hand over any data to the Chinese government in breach of Australian law. Lord also argued that banning Huawei could hurt local businesses and customers by raising prices and limiting access to technology.

TechCrunch has contacted ZTE and Huawei for comment.

The U.S. and ZTE reach a deal that will lift export ban

The United States government has made a deal with Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE that, once completed, will lift the ban preventing the company from working with American suppliers. The agreement eases tensions in the U.S.-China trade war because the seven-year denial order, which the Trump administration imposed in April after ZTE violated sanctions against North Korea and Iran, was a major point of contention between the two countries.

Our statement on #ZTE and the escrow agreement: pic.twitter.com/w0Bbej1mAU

— U.S. Commerce Dept. (@CommerceGov) July 11, 2018

According to a statement from the Commerce Department, once ZTE completes a $400 million escrow payment, the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) will lift the ban. The Commerce Department says “the ZTE settlement represents the toughest penalty and strictest compliance regime the Department has ever imposed in such a case. It will deter future bad actors and ensure the Department is able to protect the United States from those that would do us harm.”

Many U.S. lawmakers are still concerned about the security repercussions of the deal, however, and a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation last week that could potentially restore some of the penalties imposed on ZTE.

The denial order was imposed because the Commerce Department claimed that ZTE violated U.S. laws against selling equipment containing American technology to Iran and North Korea, and not only failed to follow the terms of a 2017 agreement with the Department of Justice, but also lied to the U.S. The ban cut off access to several of ZTE’s key suppliers, including Qualcomm, and was severe enough that it was described as a “death penalty” for the company, which reportedly expected to lose $3 billion as a result.

But ZTE quickly became a pawn in the U.S-China trade wars and the Trump administration said in May that the company could continue buying from U.S. suppliers if it paid a fine of at least $1.3 billion and replaced its senior management and board. ZTE’s new management team was put into place last week, with new CEO Xu Ziyang promising stronger compliance procedures.