White House creates 'Team Telecom' to probe whether foreign telcos should be allowed near US networks

Speedier license applications possible, uncertainty remains for many

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The White House has issued an executive order establishing a committee to help the Federal Communications Commission review the participation of foreign companies in US telecommunication services.

The committee, chaired by the US Attorney General, will include the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and other agency heads. Its job will be to advise the FCC on the law enforcement and national security implications of foreign telecom companies seeking FCC licenses to operate in the US.

The committee will have 120 days to conduct national security reviews of license applications, with an additional 90-day review process when a secondary assessment is deemed necessary.

The Trump administration order completes an initiative begun in 2016 during the Obama administration to streamline an FCC approval process not known for its efficiency.

When China Mobile applied for a license to operate in the US in 2011, the telco waited eight years, until 2019, for the FCC to deny the application based on national security and law enforcement concerns.

In a statement, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the order formalizes a review group led by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice known as "Team Telecom."

"By issuing this Executive Order, the President acted to ensure the security of our telecom networks against foreign actors who may seek to do us harm – and the timing could not have been better," said Carr. "The threats of attacks on our critical telecom infrastructure and illegal spying rise as our reliance on those networks rises."

Carr, who says he's been vocal about the need to protect US telecom infrastructure, urged Team Telecom to "examine every carrier owned by the Chinese government that now connects to networks here in the US." He named two carriers as examples, China Unicom and China Telecom, which have been authorized to provide communications services to the United States since at least 2002.

In a phone interview with The Register, Don Morrissey, VP of government relations at Huawei, said the order didn't directly apply to his employers, but he noted that - based on comments at FCC proceedings - it appears to fit with the administration's overall trade policy.

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That policy has not been favorable toward Chinese companies because of the Trump administration's ongoing trade skirmishes with China and its ongoing legal battle with Huawei.

While the formalization of Team Telecom could improve wait times for FCC license applications, it doesn't do anything to make the application process less opaque for foreign companies. Firms denied for national security reasons will not necessarily have insight into the reason for that denial.

Nor does it clarify the other areas of concern for Chinese businesses hoping to operate in the US, like changes being considered for the Commerce Department's foreign direct product rule. These would require all companies using US chipmaking equipment to obtain licenses to sell their products to companies like Huawei on Commerce Department's Entity List.

On Monday, nine business trade groups – BSA, CompTIA, ITI, IPC, NFTC, SEMI, SIA, SIIA, and USCIB – wrote a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asking that US export controls applied to semiconductor companies be opened to public comment prior to implementation "to ensure that any rule is appropriately designed to achieve the US government’s national security objectives without imposing unintended adverse consequences on US industry."

The trade groups said, "Given the importance of this industry – and in light of the unprecedented public health crisis and economic disruption – it is imperative that any regulatory changes be narrowly tailored and minimize damage to industry." ®

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