Few expressed surprise when a freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump named Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in January, but maybe they should have.
A former lawyer for Verizon and net neutrality opponent (like Trump) close with congressional Republicans, Pai has the market-based views shared by the majority of Trump’s cabinet (though even his predecessor, Democrat Tom Wheeler, was a lobbyist for the telecommunications industry before his nomination).
He also is the son of Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. with little, hails from a rural state, and has spent the vast majority of his career in public service (he worked for Verizon over a decade ago), working as a staffer and attorney in the Senate, Department of Justice, and FCC general counsel’s office. Pai is one of the few civil servants originally nominated by former President Barack Obama to actually get a promotion since Trump took office — qualities that make him an outlier.
Virtually every headline announcing Ajit Pai as the 34th chairman of the FCC included some form of “net neutrality opponent” as a descriptor. Pai doesn’t shy away from this — he’s been consistent on the subject since appointed by Obama in 2012. Then-Commissioner Pai often described the rules barring internet providers from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing content as a “solution in search of a problem,” since he and other opponents claim no provider has ever engaged in those activities (though there’s debate on that front).
Pai was especially against Wheeler’s move to justify the rules by reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service. The designation subjects providers to heightened potential regulations the agency forbore from, like regulating the price of service. Pai and others believe the looming threat of regulation disincentivizes providers from investing in and expanding their networks to America’s rural majority, where most have one choice of provider.
Since taking the top office, Pai’s made a number of additional headlines for rolling back several provisions of net neutrality, including transparency requirements for smaller providers, stricter privacy rules, and a probe into free data programs by wireless carriers. Last month he reiterated that his “end goal is to preserve the free and open internet that we had for two decades starting in the Clinton administration.” He’s reportedly in talks with internet service providers (ISPs) on how to do that.
The debate surrounding net neutrality rules Pai pledged to revisit have painted him as another of Trump’s ideological appointees. Another regulator hailing from a market he pursued a career in, who still views it from that perspective. But Pai’s no Scott Pruitt or Steven Mnuchin. He’s not out to stop his agency from doing work, he wants to shift it in another direction.
Pai grew up in a small town three hours south of Kansas City, the rural part of an already rural state. He’d never used broadband until going to college in the 90s, when dial-up was the only option back home until 2000. Even today, his parents can only get broadband via a local wireless provider you’ve likely never heard of.
“Every time my three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter Skype with their grandparents, my family sees the value wireless ISPs bring to rural America,” he said in 2014.
Those roots help explain what Pai dubbed the priority of his chairmanship, “to close the digital divide.” Even before becoming chairman, Pai proposed ways to aid rural broadband development, visited underserved states like West Virginia, and pitched plans for working with Congress to bring cutting edge broadband and tech businesses to economically depressed areas of the country, dubbed “gigabit opportunity zones.”
“One of the most significant things that I’ve seen during my time here is that there is a digital divide in this country—between those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not,” Pai said in January. “I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide—to do what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else. We must work to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”
In the three months since taking the chair, Pai’s worked with Democrats including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Charles Schumer to bring $170 million to upstate New York to expand broadband into unserved areas, and he passed two proposals to spend billions expanding fixed broadband and 4G LTE coverage across the U.S.
He’s also gone further than virtually any of his predecessors in recent decades to make the agency more transparent by releasing the text of items before commissioners vote on them, limiting the changes bureaus can make to items after they’re approved, and transferring more power from the chairman’s office to individual commissioners.
Those efforts didn’t garner as much press as suspending several providers from participating in the FCC’s Lifeline program for distributing phone subsidies to poor Americans (a move he pointed out affected 1 percent of participating providers). Or withdrawing a report touting the success of the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries obtain high-speed broadband.
Those actions, along with efforts to roll back net neutrality, haven’t escaped the notice of critics either.
“Commissioner Pai has a history of attacking consumer protections, from the Open Internet order to our right to privacy online,” Gene Kimmelman, president of of the pro-net neutrality group Public Knowledge said of Pai’s nomination. “We urge Chairman Pai to preserve consumer protections and to focus on driving down prices and expanding choices for all essential communications services while preserving the commission’s recent pro-competitive and consumer protection rules and actions.”
PK policy fellow Dallas Harris added “Chairman Pai has talked the talk when it comes to bridging the digital divide, but it’s time that he backed up his rhetoric with actions that will make the internet more affordable.”
Press and consumer groups greeted Wheeler with the same level of skepticism as a result of his own industry ties. Meanwhile those in the industry touted Pai’s rural roots and drive for broadband expansion.
“Ajit Pai is an exceptional choice to head the Federal Communications Commission. He’s a thoughtful, forward-looking and energetic leader who has never forgotten his roots in rural Kansas, and the need to deliver high-speed broadband access to all parts of our country,” Jonathan Spalter, president of the trade group USTelecom said.
“We share Commissioner Pai’s vision for a ‘Broadband First’ future,” he continued, “based on a bold but pragmatic strategy to erase the many regulatory barriers impeding the expansion of our nation’s communications infrastructure, and the jobs and economic opportunity that depend on it.”
However those opinions progress, they’ll undoubtedly continue for the next four years. Trump met with Pai personally for the first time in March, and submitted his proposal to renominate him for a second term at the FCC.