FCC bans China Mobile from US, reviews other Chinese carriers

Regulators say Chinese wireless companies could spy on US citizens.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

From left to right: Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, Chairman Ajit Pai, Commissioner Brendan Carr and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks


The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to block China Mobile from providing service in the US and said it's reviewing the status of other Chinese providers due to national security concerns.

In a unanimous 5-0 vote, FCC commissioners rejected a 2011 application from China Mobile USA to provide services for phone calls between the US and other countries. Multiple federal intelligence agencies had urged the agency to reject the request amid concerns that the Chinese-controlled provider would use its access to US communications networks to threaten national security.

"China Mobile ultimately is owned and controlled by the Chinese government," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, said in a statement ahead of the vote. "There is a significant risk that the Chinese government would use China Mobile to conduct activities that would seriously jeopardize the national security, law enforcement, and economic interests of the United States.

Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr also called for an investigation into other Chinese service providers that were previously given approval to do business in the US. Carr said the US should take "additional action" and investigate whether to revoke approvals for China Unicom and China Telecom.

"Much, if not all, of the reasoning behind today's decision appears to apply with equal or greater force to those legacy authorizations," Carr said. "Let's ensure that our decisions from decades past don't inadvertently endanger American interests."

Pai said at a press conference following the meeting that the agency is already "looking at" authorizations granted earlier to these carriers. But he declined to say anything more about that process. 

The denial of China Mobile's application and the increased scrutiny into the other Chinese-owned carriers represents a significant escalation in a simmering conflict between the US and China over whether to allow American companies to buy Chinese telecommunications gear. It also comes as talks heat up between the White House and Chinese officials this week over tariffs the US has imposed against goods imported from China.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of not playing fair on trade and hurting American companies. The US is expected on Friday to raise tariffs on Chinese imports from 10% to 25%. The Chinese government is expected to retaliate.

The Trump administration has already blocked Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei from selling its gear to American wireless providers, citing security concerns. But US officials have gone further, pressuring other countries around the world to do the same.

Security isn't the only thing troubling US officials when it comes to these Chinese companies. There's also significant fear around China's efforts to leap-frog the US technologically. China is seen as a major threat to the US in the race to develop 5G wireless technology, which promises faster speeds and more responsive networks. It's expected to be the foundation of a slew of advanced technologies like VR and autonomous vehicles. 

The US was a leader in the development and deployment of 4G LTE technology, and it's reaped the benefits of that leadership. China is already seen as a leader in developing 5G technology. 

Neither China Mobile, China Telecom nor China Unicom responded to a request for comment.