Pai to Be FCC Chair

FCC senior Republican Ajit Pai has been named President Donald Trump's pick as chairman of the FCC, according to a Republican source confirming a report in Politico

Trump met with Pai Jan. 16, which appeared a clear signal he would be getting the big chair, at least to begin with and perhaps permanently.

Because he has already been confirmed by the Senate, Pai does not need to be renominated or go through a Senate hearing. In fact, the source said the appointment had been made official--with the stroke of a pen--by early evening Friday (Jan. 20).

Pai's first public meeting as chairman--with a 2-1 majority--will be Jan. 31. It features a single, noncontroversial item: "Eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection file and the requirement that cable operators retain the location of the cable system’s principal headend in their public inspection file."

But look for Pai to soon start revisiting 11th-hour actions under Chairman Tom Wheeler with which he disagreed, including the FCC's signal to carriers of net neutrality issues with zero rating plans it saw as anticompetitive (I am confident that this latest regulatory spasm will not have any impact on the Commission’s policymaking or enforcement activities following next week’s inauguration.) and the denial of a request by noncommercial stations to review new reporting requirements, as well as the longer-arc policies like the Open Internet order and broadband privacy framework.

Of the FCC's advisory on zero rating, Pai said: "I am confident that this latest regulatory spasm will not have any impact on the Commission’s policymaking or enforcement activities following next week’s inauguration."

The Trump Administration is said to have signed off on a generally deregulatory plan for the commission that squares with Pai's philosophy.

Pai, nominated by President Barack Obama, joined the FCC May 7, 2012. He is a former FCC and Hill staffer and was associate general counsel at Verizon.

Pai graduated with honors from Harvard in 1994 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1997, where he was an editor of the Law Review.

He is the son of Indian immigrants, has seen the sausage factory from all angles, working at the Justice Department, on the Hill and at the FCC in an earlier stint in the General Counsel’s office. In fact, Pai calls himself the “Forest Gump” of the legal profession.

Pai is known for his passionate defense of the free market, as well as  colorful statements—including the more frequent dissents--often peppered with music references.

A top D.C. communications attorney says Pai has a brilliant legal mind and the courage of his convictions. Those convictions--to a market free of what he sees as innovation and investment-chilling regs.

Back in February, Pai outlined his regulatory philosophy to B&C: "[G]overnment does best by the American consumer when we set the conditions for vibrant competition and let the private sector compete vigorously. That is ultimately the best guarantor of consumer welfare as compared to preemptive regulation that essentially freezes in place the marketplace at a moment in time."

"Without qualification, NAB supports President Trump's selection of Ajit Pai to the position of FCC chairman. Ajit Pai is a known quantity who brings integrity, good humor and a fierce intellect to the Commission," said National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon SMith. "We look forward to working with him and his colleagues on a pro-growth FCC agenda that benefits tens of millions of Americans who rely on free broadcast radio and TV for the most popular content, credible news, and lifeline local emergency alerts."

“Ajit Pai brings with him a deep and broad intellectual understanding of the issues facing the FCC. He will be among the most experienced and substantive FCC chairs in the agency's history," said former FCC Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell. "He has a clear and unambiguous governing philosophy.  He will work to implement public policy according to his principles as soon as he can."

Free Press saw it rather differently.

“Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure," said Free Press President Craig Aaronn. "He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine. He’s been an inveterate opponent of Net Neutrality, expanded broadband access for low-income families, broadband privacy, prison phone justice, media diversity and more.

“Pai has been an effective obstructionist who looks out for the corporate interests he used to represent in the private sector. If  the new president really wanted an FCC chairman who'd stand up against the runaway media consolidation that Trump himself decried in the AT&T/Time Warner deal, Pai would have been his last choice — though corporate lobbyists across the capital are probably thrilled."

“We need an FCC that protects consumers, promotes competition, and spurs innovation,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “I will vigorously oppose any efforts by leadership at the FCC to undo net neutrality and broadband privacy rules, undermine E-Rate, or roll back any fundamental consumer protections.”

One group said Pai had been on the correct side of various issues.

"Since becoming a commissioner in 2012, Commissioner Pai has been on the right side of a number of issues supported by MMTC, including a host of practical approaches to advancing diversity and inclusion, relaxation of the broadcast foreign investment rules, and authorization of FM translators for struggling AM stations," said Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council president Kim Keenan. "His proposals for incentivizing broadband investment in underserved communities are grounded in the best work of Jack Kemp.   Moreover, he has demonstrated a willingness to consider moving away from “silos” in communication industries toward platform neutrality – a theme that originated with former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard.  This outlook has the potential to open the doors to ownership opportunities for people of color.

"Ajit Pai has demonstrated that he is an innovative, knowledgeable, and fair Commissioner whose door is open to hear all sides of an issue.  We look forward to working with him as we continue our 30-year mission of promoting policies that advance diversity in media, telecom, and tech ownership; close the digital divide; and ensure equal access to opportunity for all Americans."

"It's good news heralding the return of a more market-oriented communications policy and a more transparent, efficient, and modest FCC that Ajit Pai will be the next Chairman," said Free State Foundation president Randolph May. "I'm excited about the opportunities ahead to reorient communications policy."

John Eggerton

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.