The departing head of the US communications regulator has warned of the ongoing threat posed by China to US telecoms networks.

The warning comes as Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai confirmed in December he would step down from his post on 20 January, when President-elect Joe Biden was inaugurated.

But Pai used his departure to tell Reuters in an interview that potential Chinese espionage and threats to US telecommunications networks and internet freedom are the biggest national security issue that regulators will face in the next four years.

China threat

According to Pai there is a “wide array” of activity from China that was of concern, including  surveillance, economic espionage and potential “injection of malware into networks here in the United States or around the world,” he said.

“There are a number of bad things that can happen when insecure equipment is used to handle sensitive information,” he added.

“The Chinese Communist Party has a very determined world view,” Pai reportedly said on Tuesday. “They want to dominate this space and exert their will – even beyond their own borders.”

“That is a serious threat not just to internet freedom but to national security for us and for many of our allies, Pai reportedly said.

Pai had been appointed by President Trump in 2017 and right from the outset he proved to be controversial, after he reversed the 2015 Net Neutrality regulations, brought in under President Obama (and VP Biden), as well as former former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler (also a democrat).

Pai’s decision to reverse Net Neutrality regulations was felt by many as damaging the future of an open Internet in the United States. It meant that ISPs were able to block or slow down Internet access to certain services.

This prompted fears that consumers would have to pay for more expensive packages to stream Netflix, or tech companies will have to negotiate deals directly with providers. Businesses could also be restricted in their use of some cloud services.

Indeed, the FCC vote was opposed by many in the tech industry and beyond, and so controversial was the decision, that in January 2018 Pai, who had attended the previous five CES shows, was forced to abruptly cancelled his appearance at the tech industry trade show because of death threats.

Targeted actions

Pai stepped down from his role on Wednesday, and besides his net neutrality role, he oversaw the FCC cracking down on Chinese network equipment makers such as Huawei and ZTE.

Last month, the FCC began the process of revoking China Telecom’s authorisation to operate in the United States.

The FCC also ordered some domestic telecommunications providers to remove equipment made by China’s Huawei.

In 2019, the FCC also voted to deny state-owned China Mobile the right to provide US telecommunications services, citing risks the Chinese government could use the approval to conduct espionage.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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