US Senate panel advances bill to restrict sale of Chinese telecommunications equipment

Joe Biden

A US Senate panel approved a bill Wednesday to restrict the sale of telecommunications equipment by Chinese companies considered threats to national security.

Passed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the Secure Equipment Act of 2021 now moves to the full chamber for consideration.

The legislation is intended to close a loophole that had allowed Chinese companies including Huawei Technologies, ZTE, Hytera Communications, Hikvision and Dahua Technology to continue to sell to the US market.

Under rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year, only equipment purchased with US federal funding was prohibited. That allowed American companies to acquire the Chinese-made equipment using private or non-federal government money.

Joe Biden

The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies remains a target of legislation in the US Congress. Photo: Reuters

The legislation directs the FCC to clarify that it will no longer review or issue new equipment licenses to businesses on its “Covered Equipment or Services List” that named the five Chinese companies.

That list was compiled under a law that went into effect last year preventing US networks from using communications equipment that Washington had determined could pose a national security risk.

Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who was a sponsor of the senate bill, applauded its passage and said that “the Chinese Communist Party subsidises these companies and exploits loopholes in our laws to allow malicious actors to sell compromised equipment and services in the US.

“The status quo is dangerous, and we need to act now to strengthen our national security and protect our critical infrastructure,” he added.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s acting chairwoman, said the legislation would “help keep our country safe by ensuring that untrustworthy communications equipment is not authorised for use within our borders”.

Joe Biden

The acting Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the Senate legislation would “help keep the country safe”. Photo: AFP – Getty Images

In another move to restrict Chinese telecoms firms deemed as posing a national security risk, the FCC voted unanimously in March to continue its efforts to revoke the operating licenses of China Unicom (Americas) and ComNet, a subsidiary of China-based Pacific Networks.

Congress has already allocated US$1.9 billion to reimburse US rural telecommunications carriers for the cost of replacing existing Huawei and ZTE equipment. Those funds will be available in October.

Companion legislation to the Senate bill was passed by the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee last month.

If the two chambers pass their bills, they will then work out any differences in their versions before sending the final legislation to President Joe Biden to sign it into law.

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