The FCC plans to bar a Chinese telecommunications provider from offering international telecommunications service between the United States and foreign points based on national security concerns at its next open meeting scheduled for May 9, 2019. Under a draft Order released last week, the agency would conclude that China Mobile International USA (“China Mobile USA” or the “Company”) is ultimately controlled by the Chinese government and subject to Chinese government exploitation, influence, and control that could undermine the security and reliability of U.S. networks. The denial of China Mobile USA’s application would mark the first time the FCC has rejected an application to access the U.S. market based on national security concerns raised by the group of federal Executive Branch agencies commonly known as “Team Telecom.” The denial also would represent another salvo in the FCC’s recent efforts to combat network security and corporate espionage issues involving foreign-owned carriers. While the proposed action against China Mobile USA likely will not affect foreign carrier investment or access to the U.S. telecommunications market overall, it serves as a reminder of the barriers foreign-owned telecommunications providers (and particularly those with ties to China) may face when dealing with the FCC.

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In a move certain to inflame the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, Justice Department officials announced criminal charges against Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei, several of its affiliates, and its chief financial officer for alleged theft of trade secrets from U.S. telecommunications providers, bank fraud, obstruction of justice, and other violations. The two indictments issued on January 28, 2019, represent just the latest pushback against foreign telecommunications interests by U.S. officials, citing national security concerns and unfair trade practice claims. The FCC already proposed rule changes last year that would prohibit the use of Universal Service Fund support to purchase equipment or services from foreign companies deemed national security threats, primarily targeting companies from China and Russia. Congress also recently passed legislation prohibiting federal agencies and those working with them from using components provided by Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers. With the Trump Administration reportedly poised to issue an executive order effectively barring American companies from using Chinese-origin equipment in critical telecommunications networks, domestic service providers should keep a close eye on their supply chain security and potential liability when working with foreign entities. A criminal conviction on these charges could lead to broader restrictions on trade in U.S. export-controlled products with the company. Given the presence of encryption in telecom equipment, export controls on such products are relatively widespread
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Echoing concerns raised by other parts of the federal government over the past several years, the FCC, at its open meeting on April 17, 2018, adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to consider a rule which would prohibit Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support from being used “to purchase or obtain any equipment or services produced or provided by a company posing a national security threat to the integrity of communications networks or the communications supply chain.”  The NPRM seeks comment on issues such as how such a rule can be implemented and enforced, what types of equipment and services should be covered, and how manufacturers covered by the rule are to be identified and made known to USF recipients.  Although this is only the start of the proceeding, the FCC’s action could have a broad-reaching impact for some communications equipment manufacturers and create potential liabilities for entities participating in any of the federal USF programs.  All companies purchasing equipment from certain countries – principally China and Russia – may be affected, even if they don’t receive federal USF money.

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