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Knock, Knock. Who's There? Ajit Pai

Ajit Pai

Ajit Pai

FCC chair Ajit Pai delivered a solid set of inside jokes at the Federal Communications Bar Association's annual Chairman's Dinner at the Washington Hilton Tuesday (Dec. 10).  

By tradition, the chairman chides staffers, fellow commissioners and industry players, some of whom are former FCC staffers and commissioners and chairmen. Pai's generally gentle roast--or in the case of retiring Office of Engineering and Technology Julie Knapp a combination roast and toast--was met with consistent if not aisle-rolling laughter and a groan or two. 

The audience was full of former FCC chairs, from Dick Wiley and Mark Fowler to Michael Powell and Mignon Clyburn, as well as former and current commissioners, attorneys aplenty and journalists afew. 

Pai came with a familiar prop, a giant orange Reese's mug from which he periodically sipped water.  

Among the best-received jokes (grins and groans): 

Noting a Philadelphia Inquirer headline that said retiring Comcast senior EVP David Cohen was being replaced by six people, Pai said that the FCC knows that it only takes five people (as in the five commissioners) to do the work of David Cohen. 

Pai also cited a headline about his decision to free up  for 5G some spectrum in the 5.9 Ghz band--currently licensed for vehicle-to-vehicle communications but mostly lying fallow--as his attempt to take away spectrum used for transportation.

"Used?" he mused quizzically, explaining that was like saying a treadmill was being used because that was where you hung your clothes. 

As to Twitter's decision not to accept political ads, Pai said National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith urged all his industry's competitors to do the same. 

Pai talked about his lunch with the President a couple of months ago and how some were suggesting Trump was influencing policy. Pai said that was not true, but, on another subject, said that all the proceeds from the C-band auction would be going to purchase Greenland. 

The chairman was interrupted by a phone call that appeared to be coming from Rudy Giuliani. Pai tried returning the call but got a robotic voice informing him that the call was being placed on Dish Cellular so the call "couldn't be completed as dialed..."or really at all." 

He said AT&T has a new lobbying strategy: If anyone opposes their petitions, AT&T will send their phone records to Adam Schiff

Pai worked in a streaming joke. He said with all the services out there and more on the way, consumers were looking for a way to bundle them all and pay one bill. "If he still had hair, [NCTA president] Michael Powell would be pulling it out," Pai said. 

The chairman said the 5G hype machine was out of control and that they had to be careful that it did not become the most overrated G since Kenny

The election is heating up, he said, but pointed out that former chairman Tom Wheeler had done three minutes of Trump jokes at the dinner in 2016: "You know how that turned out for Tom."  

'Electrocuted Eagle' logo

'Electrocuted Eagle' logo

Pai said he was serious that the FCC was working on updating its logo (above), but joked that the reason was because PETA was "on our ass" about the electrocuted eagle.

The chairman ended his speech, again by tradition, with a toast to all the hard-working FCC staff. 

He was in good form even before the speech. Asked by this reporter in a private conversation to "look like he was making news"--Pai is famously averse to doing so in post-meeting press conferences--he quipped back: "We plan to nationalize 5G, and you can Tweet that."  

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.