As a B&C reporter waited in the Federal Communications Commission’s eighth-floor lobby to interview Ajit Pai, the elevator doors opened to reveal the FCC’s two Republican commissioners, Pai and senior Republican Robert McDowell, returning from lunch.
It was appropriate to find them together, since Pai and McDowell are aligned in their dislike of too heavy a regulatory hand on industry. They have teamed up to dissent on a couple of recent FCC decisions, as well as to cast the first votes (after that of chairman Julius Genachowski) approving the Verizon/SpectrumCo deal.
But while commissioner Pai appears to be a solid second vote for more deregulatory policies, he is also charting his own path, though a trail he concedes was blazed by his parents, who came to this country from India. Pai is not focused on being the first Indian-American commissioner, though he is proud of that distinction, given that it reflects on the success and sacrifice of his parents. It is easy to put conservatives and liberals into boxes: industry tools, union lackeys—the better to marginalize them.
But Pai’s defense of the marketplace as a primary driver of innovation and opportunity appears rooted in his experience of family success driven by initiative and rewarded by the marketplace. “Their approach to life,” he says of his parents, “is that when an opportunity presents itself, you should work as hard as you can to take advantage of it. I take the same approach as a general regulatory matter that if we remove some of the regulatory barriers to opportunity, risk-takers in the private sector will take advantage of it and deliver cutting-edge technologies and services.”
It is not clear how much Pai can get done from the bully pulpit of a minority seat on the FCC, but he has some good ideas about speeding the agency’s decisionmaking— one of which he credits to media activist attorney Andrew Schwartzman, hardly the poster-person for a conservative Republican commissioner. It will take more such cross-pollination of reform ideas to get any real reform done.
In his first extensive interview as an FCC commissioner, Pai is careful not to talk too specifically about issues currently before the commission, but he does speak broadly about the need for the FCC to acknowledge that the marketplace is more competitive than the one for which legacy regulations were adopted.
He also had the right answer, at least as far as broadcasters are concerned, on the future of broadcasters facing a broadband-centric FCC (and Pai is as high on wireless as anybody) that is about to come out with the first rules of the road for spectrum reclamation. “To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the broadcasting industry’s demise have been greatly exaggerated,” he told B&C. “Broadcasting continues to play a vital role in communities across the country. On the television and the radio side, consumers still draw tremendous benefits from broadcasting, and I think that is something that will continue into the future...I’m optimistic about the future of broadcasting.”
We aren’t in the business of endorsing individuals, candidates or regulators. Our readers are smart enough to figure out for themselves who it is in their best interests to support. But we can tell them it is in their interests to consider Pai’s case for a nimbler and more accountable FCC, as well as a still-relevant broadcasting business.
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