Senators urge FCC to scrutinize Chinese carriers operating in US

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton say China Telecom and China Unicom could pose a national security threat.

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
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Sen. Tom Cotton, right, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are asking the FCC to reexamine licenses for two Chinese telecom providers amid security concerns. 

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Two US senators are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to take another look at licenses granted in the early 2000s to two Chinese telecommunication providers. Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Monday saying they believe China Telecom and China Unicom could pose serious risks to US national security.  

"These state-owned companies continue to have access to our telephone lines, fiber-optic cables, cellular networks and satellites in ways that could give it (China) the ability to target the content of communications of Americans or their businesses and the US government, including through the 'hijacking' of telecommunications traffic by redirecting it through China," the senators wrote in a letter. 

The letter was also sent to the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security.  

The FCC voted unanimously in May to deny a 2011 application from China Mobile, another state-owned Chinese carrier, to provide services for phone calls between the US and other countries, citing national security concerns. Chairman Pai said at the time that the Chinese government could use China Mobile to "conduct activities that would seriously jeopardize the national security, law enforcement, and economic interests of the United States."

Also at the time, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr urged the agency to reconsider the licenses of 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 at the FCC meeting in May. "Let's ensure that our decisions from decades past don't inadvertently endanger American interests."

But China Unicom and China Telecom, which were granted licenses by the FCC in the early 2000s, have retained their ability to operate in the US. And the FCC hasn't yet opened a proceeding to strip them of their licenses.

Schumer and Cotton are formally asking the FCC to begin that process, and they say these licenses should be reexamined and "revoked" if they "do not serve the public interest."

The request from the senators comes amid a simmering conflict between the US and China over whether to allow American companies to buy Chinese telecommunications gear. President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of not playing fair on trade and hurting American companies. His administration has levied tariffs on some Chinese imports. The administration has also tried to block American companies from exporting their technology to China and has banned the sale of communications equipment from certain Chinese companies, like Huawei, from being used in US 5G networks. It's also been pressuring other countries around the world to do the same.

A spokesperson for Pai's office said the chairman "has made it clear that the commission is reviewing other Chinese communications companies such as China Telecom and China Unicom." 

China Telecom Americas said in a statement that the company has been operating in the US for nearly 20 years and hopes to continue operating here.

"We make the protection of our customers' data a priority and have built a solid reputation as one of the best telecom companies in the world," a spokesman said in an email. 

China Unicom didn't immediately respond to comment. 

Originally published Sept. 16, 1:40 p.m. PT.
Update 2 p.m. PT: Adds comment from China Telecom. 

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