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FCC’s Ajit Pai Departs With Mixed Results

FCC chairman Ajit Pai in 2017
FCC chairman Ajit Pai drew notice for his deregulatory efforts, and for the oversized coffee mug he drank from during network neutrality proceedings in 2017. (Image credit: Andrew Harrer/Getty Images)

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai leaves a mixed legacy as he prepares to depart the regulator on Jan. 20, when the Biden administration takes over.

Pai presided over a flurry of spectrum-related decisions, worked hard at pruning what he called the regulatory underbrush and tried to deregulate local broadcast ownership, an effort that was once again blocked by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, though in that he had to stand in line behind numerous previous FCC chairs whose congressionally-mandated reviews of media regulations kept running into trouble with the same court.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and no cheerleader for the deregulatory Pai, told Multichannel News that while he believes Pai’s policies resulted in less competition and higher prices, the chairman gets “high marks” for “facing down” other parts of the government to open up new spectrum bands for wireless. 

ALSO READ: Pai Makes FCC Exit Official

Pai ran into pushback from the Transportation Department, the Defense Department and other agencies for his efforts to liberate government spectrum for commercial use, either by reclamation and auction or by dynamic sharing. But he pushed through the flak to get key bipartisan votes on some crucial spectrum repurposing, as well as some less-than-bipartisan items to speed 5G tower siting.

Pai — an affable figure who loved to quote song lyrics, rooted unabashedly for his Kansas City Chiefs from his bully pulpit and wielded an oversize Reese’s mug — appeared on the surface an unlikely figure to draw what were sometimes withering attacks over his signature issue: net neutrality. 

“Ajit Pai will go down in history as one of the most corrupt government officials of the century,” Evan Greer, deputy director of open-internet advocacy group Fight for the Future, said in one such harsh attack. “His callous attack on net neutrality and blatant coddling of Big Telecom monopolies sparked the largest cross-partisan online backlash in the modern era. As he fades into the background, his smug demeanor and giant Reese’s mug will become cautionary memes –– reminding internet users what happens when we don’t hold our government accountable.”

The FCC had no comment on Greer’s statement for this story. 

Net Neutrality a Flashpoint

It was clear from the outset of his tenure that Pai would take aim at the FCC’s net-neutrality rules adopted, against his dissent, by Democratic predecessor Tom Wheeler. Pai’s deregulatory decision ceded the bulk of internet access oversight to the Federal Trade Commission, which essentially backstops ISP service pledges to make sure they are not false, deceptive or anti-competitive. 

PAI BY THE NUMBERS

7: FCC auctions held during his tenure: Five spectrum auctions and two reverse rural broadband auctions.

97: TV stations repacked following the broadcast incentive auction.

1,245: The amount of of midband [5G “sweet spot”] spectrum freed up for unlicensed use.

25-PLUS: Orders adopted under the Modernization of Media Regulation initiative, Pai’s effort to clear the “regulatory underbrush.”

$1.5 TRILLION: The amount Pai says broadband providers were empowered to invest because the FCC eliminated net neutrality rules.

SOURCE: FCC

That was just fine with cable and telco broadband operators, who said the rules had bottled up investment, but drew harsh and sometimes personal criticism from backers of the net neutrality rules.

Critics cited Pai’s handling of the net neutrality comment docket: He erred on the side of letting all flowers bloom, and many of them turned out to be weeds in the form of bogus comments, some stemming from Russia. But most of the criticism was over the decision itself and elimination of rules that net neutrality advocates said were necessary to save the internet. Pai has since suggested those dire predictions were bogus, too. 

That net neutrality deregulation will likely get reversed in a Biden FCC, or overturned by Congress if the Democrats take over the Senate.

And while Pai’s attempts to deregulate broadcasting were mostly eliminated by a 3rd Circuit action over what the court said was the FCC’s failure to sufficiently gauge their impact on diversity, the Pai FCC did preside over the historic repack of almost 1,000 stations following the broadcast incentive auction. It also approved a new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard that could be a game-changer.

“Ideology aside, chairman Pai has been an excellent administrator of the agency,” said Schwartzman, who squared off in court against the FCC efforts to deregulate broadcast media. “His good-natured personality has served him well in that regard.”

Spectrum of Possibilities

Pai made freeing up spectrum for unlicensed use (see box) and closing the digital divide a priority. The chairman gets high marks from the public-interest community for his spectrum-freeing activity, Schwartman said.

Those spectrum moves have included the repurposing of C-band auction that launched last week, the largest auction of midband spectrum ever, and the decision last month to repurpose spectrum licensed to intelligent transport systems (ITS) for WiFi, a move pushed and applauded by cable broadband operators, given that WiFi hot spots are still their primary mobile broadband play.

ALSO READ: Pai: 'Must See TV' Is Now 'Must Watch Internet'

Closing the digital divide, particularly the rural divide, has proved more difficult. The FCC’s success in that regard is open to interpretation, depending on how progress is measured and how “high speed” and “access” are defined.

Pai has cited steady progress: the National Grange honored him as their Champion of Rural America in 2019 for his expansion of rural broadband, for example.

But Democrats, in Congress and on the FCC, argue that as long as millions remain without access to affordable, high-speed broadband (faster than the FCC’s current baseline definition), particularly given the pandemic-focused spotlight on the consequences of a lack of access, the Pai FCC has not made enough progress.

Pai agreed more can be done, but said Congress needs to step in given with more funding. NCTA-the Internet & Television Association president and CEO Michael Powell concurred, suggesting recently the government may have to make affordable broadband part of the social safety net.