FCC moves forward with rule aimed at protecting US communications networks

FCC moves forward with rule aimed at protecting US communications networks
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday proposed a new rule that would stop government programs from using agency funds to buy equipment and services from countries that pose cybersecurity risks to the United States.

Under the new rule, money from the FCC Universal Service Fund — which subsidizes broadband and phone access for low-income Americans — could not be used for purchases from companies or countries who pose security threats to the United States's communications networks.

The agency did not specify which countries may pose a threat, however, many expect Chinese companies to be in the FCC’s crosshairs. 

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Both the administration and Congress have targeted Chinese telecommunications firms, phone makers and others in recent months.

Late last year, the White House moved to block the acquisition of two American companies by Chinese companies. Members of Congress have also put pressure to keep companies like China Mobile and Huawei from gaining contracts with the U.S. government.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who initially called for the rule, said his actions came after a letter was sent to him in December by Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: Senators show skepticism over Space Force | Navy drops charges against officers in deadly collision | Trump taps next Navy chief Senators show deep skepticism on Space Force proposal GOP senators introduce bill to reduce legal immigration  MORE (R-Ark.) and other lawmakers asking that he consider the threat of Chinese firms.

Cotton and other Republicans share the concern that Chinese companies could be pressured by the Chinese government into using their technology as a means to spy on Americans.

While Republicans have thus far been the primary backers of the rule in Congress, FCC commissioners in both parties said they were supportive of considering the proposal.

Democrats did express some reservation.

“While we must take the responsibility of securing this critical infrastructure seriously, we have the added challenge of doing so in a way that is cost-effective,” said Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

“Getting it wrong will not only do little to safeguard national security but hamper our efforts to close the digital divide and not serve the public interest.”

The agency will use the comment period to hash out many details about the plan including what firms and countries present threats, what type of equipment and services are the most vulnerable and how to best enact the potential prohibition.