FCC Blocks US Access for Another Chinese Telecom Company

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Concerns remain surrounding data centers controlled by entities like China Unicom Americas.

The Federal Communications Commission has revoked China Unicom Americas’ permit to provide telecommunications services under authority that still leaves room for the company to access Americans’ data.  

“We direct China Unicom Americas to discontinue any domestic or international services that it provides pursuant to its Section 214 authority,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said after a 4-0 vote during a meeting of the commission Thursday. The company has 60 days to discontinue such services, according to the order.

The move is the latest in a series of decisions aimed at addressing security concerns associated with laws government officials say compel companies headquartered in China to share information with Beijing on demand. The same laws were cited for banning companies like Huawei, ZTE and others for use by federal agencies.

“Consistent with the actions the commission took against China Mobile in 2019, and China Telecom in 2020, our decision today is informed by the views of the executive branch agencies with responsibility for national security reviews,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr. “Indeed the FCC’s own review found that China Unicom possesses significant national security concerns, due to its control and ownership by the Chinese government, including its susceptibility to complying with communist China's intelligence and cybersecurity laws.” 

But section 214 addresses “lines” or “channels” of communication, meaning other ways of accessing data in modern systems remain wide open, according to Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who suggested the need for a potential expansion of the commission’s authority.  

“There is more work to do,” Starks said. “Data centers have become a critical part of the American communications and technology sector, and are instrumental to new use cases, like edge computing. Even after a loss of their section 214 authority companies like China Unicom Americas can continue to offer data center services to American customers. The Department of Homeland Security has warned that these data centers leave customers vulnerable to data theft. I think this administration should, along with Congress, examine this and determine whether the Commission needs broader authority to tackle these and other network security threats.” 

The commission has also initiated similar proceedings toward revoking the licenses of Pacific Networks Corp. and ComNet. Rosenworcel has also reached out to the Department of Commerce, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Federal Acquisition Security Council, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for input on updating the commission’s list of “covered entities.” Companies listed will not be eligible for use by any service provider applying for money from the Universal Service Fund, which is collected from fees extracted from consumers. Rosenworcel said the commission plans to update the list of covered entities by March of this year. 

Under Rosenworcel’s leadership, the commission has been reclaiming its cybersecurity role

“We are rechartering the Cybersecurity Regulators Forum that has been dormant for the past few years—and assuming its leadership,” the chairwoman said.