Pai on COVID-19 Regulating: Markets Before Mandates

FCC chair Ajit Pai suggested the FCC was having to MacGyver a response in real time as it regulated, including plenty of temporary deregulation, in the age of COVID-19. 

That came in an online address to the Interamerican Development Bank and International Institute of Communications, which held a workshop Friday (April 17) on regulating during pandemics and what lessons could be taken away from that. 

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"In many ways, we’re still building the plane while flying it," he said.  

Pai pointed out that it had only been five weeks since the FCC shut down its headquarters and moved home and online, shifting its focus to pandemic response. 

He said the first thing was to set clear priorities, which were to help keep and get as many people online given that was where much of shelter-in-place living would be done. Keeping them online meant recognizing that massive temporary job losses meant many might not be able to pay the bills, including broadband and phone. 

He said the guiding principle to the FCC's response was "markets before mandates." 

He said rather than compel companies to carry out government goals, the FCC chose instead to call on broadband and phone providers to sign a Keep Americans Connected pledge, which was to make sure no consumer lost service (for 60 days) due to inability to pay; no one would be charged late fees and WiFi hotspots would be open to all. He pointed out that over 700 providers made that promise, including all of the largest and many of the smallest providers. 

When Pai asked them to go beyond that pledge and do whatever they could, many agreed, he said. "They’ve upgraded speeds at no charge, expanded low-cost programs, offered free service to low-income families and students, and donated connectivity to healthcare workers and facilities." 

Why are private companies acting in the public interest he asked, and answered: "I think the biggest factor is that these decisions are made by people. And in trying times, most people want to do the right thing, not just for their company, but for their fellow citizens and for their country." 

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But he also said market forces were at work. If companies did not step up in a crisis, consumers would remember when times got better, he said.  

The chairman put in a plug for broadcasters as well, saying they had used their platform to promote social distancing and provided Americans with information to help them stay safe and healthy.  

Trusting the market rather than solely on mandates is more consumer friendly, he argues, than "heavy handed" government intervention. 

His other advice was to use every regulatory tool at your disposal and in an emergency,"act like its an emergency," which means cutting through bureaucracy because delays "can be deadly." And, he added, put people first. 

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.