Senators Call for Legislation to Ensure Security Reviews of Foreign Telecoms

Novikov Aleksey/

The bipartisan report says a recent executive order on the issue doesn’t go far enough.

A year-long investigation into the actions of an informal collection of agencies responsible for informing decisions about foreign telecom providers’ permission to operate within the United States concluded with a recommendation that Congress establish statutory authorities and requirements for the group.     

“Team Telecom,” as the group is known, is made up of representatives from the departments of Justice, Treasury, Defense Homeland Security and others. Its role advising the Federal Communications Commission on national security issues came to the forefront of telecommunications policy last May when the commission finally denied China Mobile’s application to provide services within the U.S.  

The FCC had been waiting seven years for a recommendation from the executive branch agencies on the petition. A new report produced by the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s permanent subcommittee on investigations emphasized that it was the first time the FCC has denied an application on the basis of national security.      

“This bipartisan report demonstrates that federal agencies have done little to protect the integrity of U.S. telecommunications networks and counter national security threats from China,” Subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a press release Tuesday. “The Chinese Communist Party uses its state-owned enterprises to further its cyber and economic espionage efforts against the United States, and they’ve been exploiting our telecommunications networks for nearly two decades while the federal government historically put in little effort to stop it.” 

The report acknowledged the benefit of an executive order President Trump issued in April that laid out roles and responsibilities for the relevant agencies providing input on  FCC’s licensing decisions. The order established the agencies as a new, official committee with the attorney general as chair. But senators recommended stronger requirements and for the responsibilities and resources for the new committee to be bolstered by statute.

“Team Telecom’s historical lack of statutory authority led to a review process criticized by many as ‘opaque’ and ‘broken,’” the report reads. “The recent Executive Order is a positive step, but formal legislative authority will provide for greater oversight over foreign carriers. While the Order is a positive development, it does not address all of the concerns the Subcommittee identified relating to Team Telecom, including resource levels and formal review procedures ” 

The report notes, for example, that while the executive order “allows” the new telecom committee to review existing authorizations, it “does not mandate” periodic review or renewal.  

“Considering the limited resources DOJ and DHS dedicated to Team Telecom’s review of foreign carriers’ applications, it is unlikely that they will review many existing authorizations,” the report adds. 

The senators argue entities currently operating in the U.S. present a threat to national security as they are governed by laws that would allow the Chinese government to tap them to carry out economic and cyber espionage, given links they’ve established with critical U.S. infrastructure. 

The FCC on April 24 noted it has sent letters to four companies—China Telecom Americas, China Unicom Americas, Pacific Networks and ComNet—which they say are all ultimately subject to the ownership and control of the Chinese government. The “show cause” orders ask the companies to explain why their licenses shouldn’t be revoked.