Executive Order Lays Out Timelines for National Security Reviews of Foreign Telecom Providers

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FCC Chairman says the agency will now act on a rulemaking it’s been sitting on since 2016.

A new committee of executive agency members will have 120 days to complete national security reviews the Federal Communications Commission requires in order to determine whether it should authorize foreign telecommunications providers to operate within the United States, according to an executive order issued over the weekend.    

That’s longer than some stakeholders would have liked, but a huge step forward to FCC commissioners from both political parties who have complained of a lack of transparency and deadlines for the process over the years.

The committee, formerly known as “Team Telecom,” includes the defense secretary, the attorney general, homeland security secretary, and “the head of any other executive department or agency, or any assistant to the president, as the president determines appropriate.”

The order comes as the administration tries to balance a crackdown on Chinese telecommunications providers it views as a threat to national security with a need to keep the wheels of global commerce in motion. 

“I applaud the President for formalizing Team Telecom review and establishing a process that will allow the Executive Branch to provide its expert input to the FCC in a timely manner,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release Monday. “Now that this Executive Order has been issued, the FCC will move forward to conclude our own pending rulemaking on reform of the foreign ownership review process.”

That pending rulemaking was initiated by Obama-era FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler with support from Republican Mike O’Rielly, a long-time proponent of a more structured “Team Telecom” process.  

“There is little dispute that Team Telecom must improve the transparency and timeliness of their decisions,” O’Rielly said after the FCC’s vote last May on an application from China Mobile. The application was submitted in 2011. The administration had taken seven years to file its recommendation to deny the application. 

“I have been calling for Team Telecom reform since 2015 and worked closely with former Chairman Wheeler on a proceeding to adopt deadlines and enhance transparency, only to have him inexplicably pull the plug a day or two after the 2016 election,” O'Rielly said.

Asked why the current chairman did not revive the rulemaking earlier, an FCC spokesperson told Nextgov, “Because it is important for the FCC review process and Executive Branch review process to be aligned, it made sense for the Executive Order to be issued before finalizing our Team Telecom rulemaking."

While the executive order addresses timelines for the committee’s advisory agencies—such as 30 days for the Director of National Intelligence to submit a written assessment—the rulemaking considers issues such as whether applicants should be required to certify their responses to reviewers’ requests. 

According to the 2016 notice of proposed rulemaking, some commenters suggested that the commission should adopt a 30-day requirement for recommendations, but “most suggest a time frame of 90 days, similar to the time frame followed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.”

“Uncertain time frames have ‘likely deterred foreign investment in the United States—investment that benefits U.S. businesses and consumers, not just foreign investors,’” the commenters said.

Pai echoed that sentiment in his statement Monday.

“As we demonstrated last year in rejecting the China Mobile application, this FCC will not hesitate to act to protect our networks from foreign threats,” he said. “At the same time, we welcome beneficial investment in our networks and believe that this Executive Order will allow us to process such applications more quickly.”