Pai parting shot at China as rumours mount over FCC chair

Pai fires parting shot at China as rumours mount over new FCC chair

21 January 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Ajit Pai left the US telecoms regulator yesterday with a final short at what he called potential Chinese espionage and threats to networks.

Pai stepped down from his role chairing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after four years, timing his departure for hours before the inauguration of Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president of the US.

However, the incoming administration has still not named a successor.

The FCC’s last act under his leadership was an auction of 280MHz of spectrum for 5G services in the 3.7-3.98GHz band — also called C-band by the satellite industry.

Bidders committed US$80.9 billion for 5,884 blocks of spectrum, Pai said. “These results represent a strong endorsement by the private sector of the service rules and transition plan put in place by the FCC to quickly make the C-band a critical part of 5G rollout in the United States.”

The FCC has “enabled America’s wireless consumers to more quickly benefit from 5G services”, he said. Winning bidders will now have the opportunity to bid for frequency-specific licenses in the assignment phase of the auction.

Pai told the Reuters news agency in an interview that there is a “wide array” of activity from China that was of concern, including of surveillance, economic espionage and potential “injection of malware into networks here in the United States or around the world. There are a number of bad things that can happen when insecure equipment is used to handle sensitive information.”

During his four years at the top of the FCC, he refused to grant a licence to China Mobile that would allow it to operate networks in the US, and started action to revoke licences granted to China Telecom, China Unicom and two subsidiaries of CITIC Telecom. It blocked the operation of the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) into the Chinese special administrative region (SAR) of Hong Kong, the FCC having authority because the cable starts on US soil.

Pai told Reuters: “The Chinese Communist Party has a very determined world view. 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.”

Meanwhile the FCC leadership was absent from a list of appointments yesterday published by the Biden administration after he was sworn in as 46th president of the US.

In an analysis published yesterday by S&P Global, the market research arm associated with the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency, suggested two people as leading the race to run the FCC: Jessica Rosenworcel, the most senior Democratic Party-supporting commissioner at the FCC, and Edward Smith, a lawyer who has worked with Tom Wheeler when he chaired the FCC Chairman.

S&P Global noted that Smith, often nicknamed Smitty, is on leave of absence from the DLA Piper law firm, as he is working on Biden’s agency review transition team for the FCC.

The firm also identified Gigi Sohn, a former member of Wheeler’s staff, as a possible candidate. She is a distinguished fellow at Washington DC’s Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

Chris Lewis, president and CEO of public interest group Public Knowledge, who identified Sohn as a possible candidate, also suggested Anna Gomez of the Wiley law firm. She was deputy assistant secretary for communications and information for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and worked for 12 years at the FCC.