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Outgoing FCC head insists China is biggest risk to US infrastructure

(ATF) The outgoing head of the US telecoms regulator said potential Chinese espionage, including cyber-attacks and hacking – is the biggest national security issue that his successors would face in the next four years.

The departing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, told Reuters in a final interview that China was the main concern, including its surveillance, economic espionage and potential “injection of malware into networks here … or around the world”.

Pai took a hard line on China from his appointment in 2017,  almost immediately moving to dismantle Chinese companies’ access to US telecommunications infrastructure. China’s foreign ministry said in December that US claims about risks to national security were false.

The FCC first warned in April might terminate US operations of three state-controlled Chinese telecom companies including China Telecom. In 2019, the FCC voted to deny state-owned China Mobile the right to provide US telecom services, citing risks the Chinese government could use the approval to conduct espionage.

Last month, the FCC began the process of revoking the authorisation for China Telecom, the largest Chinese telecommunications company, to operate in the US. Under Pai, the FCC formally designated China’s Huawei and ZTE Corp as national security threats, barring US firms from tapping an $8.3 billion government fund to purchase equipment from the companies.

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Congress approved $1.9 billion in December to pay for replacement of Chinese-made equipment in US networks.

In April, the FCC approved Alphabet unit Google’s request to use part of an US-Asia undersea telecommunications cable, but not to Chinese-run Hong Kong, after intelligence agencies raised national security concerns.

Pai was named chairman in January 2017 by former president Donald Trump and stepped down on January 20 after a controversial tenure during which he was accused of pandering to big business at the expense of smaller enterprises and internet users.

In 2018 the FCC voted to eliminate the “net neutrality” protections that stop internet providers from prioritising higher-paying clients, or blocking access, filtering content, or charging higher fees for so-called “fast lanes”.

“The repeal of these protections has corporate greed and corruption written all over it,” US senator Elizabeth Warren said at the time.

In a farewell statement on January 20, Pai claimed he had done much for the American people, “from narrowing the digital divide to advancing American leadership in 5G, from protecting consumers and national security to keeping Americans connected during the pandemic”.

With reporting by Reuters

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George Russell

George Russell is a freelance writer and editor based in Hong Kong who has lived in Asia since 1996. His work has been published in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, New York Post, Variety, Forbes and the South China Morning Post.

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