AG Barr to Chair Committee on Reviewing Foreign Involvement in US Telecom Network

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
April 7, 2020Updated: April 7, 2020

Attorney General William Barr will head a newly established committee that will review national security concerns arising from foreign-owned companies who wish to participate in the U.S. telecommunications network.

The committee was established by President Donald Trump through an executive order on April 4. Its main purpose is to review licensing applications and licenses from companies under foreign-based companies to determine national security and law enforcement risks. After review, the committee will advise the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a federal independent agency regulating communication networks, on the appropriate way to respond to the risks either by dismissing or denying an application, providing a conditional grant, or modifying or revoking a license.

The executive order formalizes a working group known as Team Telecom, which has been providing oversight on foreign investments in the country’s telecom sector for years. Along with Barr, the committee will also consist of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Acting Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf, and other heads of agencies or department the president deems appropriate.

“In the digital age, our telecommunications networks are more important than ever, and not just to the economy,” Barr said in a statement. “This is a national security and public safety issue. That’s why the federal government must be vigilant and ensure that a foreign adversary cannot undermine the networks our country depends on.”

FCC chairman Ajit Pai also welcomed Trump’s executive order, saying that it will allow the executive branch to provide timely input to the FCC.

“Now that this Executive Order has been issued, the FCC will move forward to conclude our own pending rulemaking on reform of the foreign ownership review process,” Pai said in a statement (pdf). “As we demonstrated last year in rejecting the China Mobile application, this FCC will not hesitate to act to protect our networks from foreign threats. At the same time, we welcome beneficial investment in our networks and believe that this Executive Order will allow us to process such applications more quickly.”

The establishment of the committee comes in the wake of the FCC’s denial of China Mobile’s application to provide telecommunication services in the United States. China Mobile USA, a Delaware corporation, is a subsidiary of the state-owned China Mobile Limited, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, and is ultimately controlled by the Chinese regime, the FCC said (pdf).

The company filed an application in 2011 to provide international telecommunication services. After a review, the FCC determined that granting China Mobile’s application would cause the United States to be “vulnerable to exploitation, influence, and control” by the Chinese Communist Party, Pai said at the time.

“[T]here 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,” Pai said. “If this application were granted, the Chinese government could use China Mobile to exploit our telephone network to increase intelligence collection against U.S. government agencies and other sensitive targets that depend on this network.

Earlier this year, Barr raised concerns about the threat of China’s dominance in the global 5G infrastructure market—capturing 40 percent of the market through telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE.

“The Chinese are using every lever of power to expand their 5G market share around the globe,” Barr said in February.

He urged the United States to find an alternative to Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications network equipment. Ren Zhengfei, the founder of the company, was a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army. He continues to run the company today.

Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.