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USA kicks out China Unicom, but FCC still in pursuit

Commissioner worries that data on China-controlled servers is at same risk as data on China-controlled networks

The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has barred Chinese carrier China Unicom from operating in America.

China Unicom Americas promotes a wide range of data carriage services and bills itself as "the trusted partner of US-based businesses seeking one-stop connectivity with China and beyond."

But the FCC believes no US business should trust China Unicom and has investigated its operations since early 2021, when it signalled its preference for expelling the carrier.

In its Thursday announcement of the ban, the Commission cites four reasons for the decision:

  • China Unicom Americas is a subsidiary of a state-owned enterprise and therefore likely to do Beijing's bidding when asked.
  • The Chinese government could use China Unicom to "access, store, disrupt, and/or misroute US communications, which in turn allow them to engage in espionage and other harmful activities against the United States." Such actions were evidently not considered likely when China Unicom was permitted to do business in America.
  • As US authorities tried to talk security with China Unicom, the carrier displayed "a lack of candour, trustworthiness, and reliability that erodes the baseline level of trust that the Commission and other US government agencies require of telecommunications carriers."
  • Mitigation "would not address these significant national security and law enforcement concerns."

None of the above are new concerns for US regulators. Indeed, some of the language the FCC has used today is almost identical to the wording used when it banned another Chinese carrier – China Telecom – in October 2021.

Keeping Chinese entities and products out of US networks is also established policy: 2020's Clean Networks plan calls for Chinese carriers and kit to be expunged from US networks, and is backed by a $1.9 billion reimbursement program that US telcos can use to bin Huawei and ZTE kit and have Uncle Sam pick up the tab.

But the ban on China Unicom does contain something new: FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks' statement on the ban notes that US Department of Homeland Security believes using China-controlled datacentres also create risks to US businesses because China's government could compel operators to do anything to tenants' data and applications. The Clean Networks plan already calls for US entities to use only "clean clouds" and to prevent their data from residing in China-controlled clouds.

The FCC has no power to consider the national security risks posed by clouds or datacentres, but Starks thinks that may need to change. "We should work with the Administration and Congress to examine whether the Commission needs broader authority to tackle this and other network security threats."

Stark's statement offers no detail on how, or when, he plans to discuss such new powers. Nor did he detail the nature of the "other" threats he wants considered. The Register has contacted the commish to seek further information. We have also contacted China Unicom for comment. We will update this story if substantial information is forthcoming. ®

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