Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai will be named permanent chairman of the agency according to multiple reports Friday, confirming speculation he’ll take the reigns from former Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler as he departs with the Obama administration.
Pai is the senior Republican at the agency and was tapped by former President Barack Obama to join the FCC in 2012. Much of his tenure since has focused on opposing Wheeler’s agenda, including net neutrality, expansions to FCC privacy authority and the agency’s Lifeline phone and internet subsidies for poor Americans. All were passed along partisan lines.
“It is time to bring more openness and transparency to the FCC,” Pai said after the election last year. “From publicly releasing the text of documents we vote on at public meetings to establishing an FCC Dashboard with key performance metrics, we can better enable the public to know what and how we are doing.”
The agency’s new chief also opposed plans to let third parties enter the cable set-top box marketplace, regulate rates for high-capacity business broadband services, and limit free data offerings for certain video providers by wireless carriers, none of which came to a vote.
Aside from opposing what he and fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly described as a partisan agenda that frequently left them in the dark, Pai championed efforts to expand broadband into rural areas like his home state of Kansas. He’s also laid out suggestions for the agency and Congress to work together on bringing startups and entrepreneurs to those traditionally underserved areas.
Pai supported Wheeler in efforts to break ground on new technologies like opening up airwaves for future 5G networks, and has led an independent investigation into Lifeline fraud and abuse by wireless carriers.
As chairman, Pai will likely seek to roll back many aspects of Wheeler’s agenda especially with regard to net neutrality, rules he and O’Rielly have already stated they plan to “revisit … as soon as possible” with their new majority.
“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation,” he said in December, adding Republicans would shift to “going on offense” in the Trump administration.
President Trump has reportedly signed off on a plan from his FCC transition team to transfer competition and consumer protection to the Federal Trade Commission, a move consistent with opinions and policies Pai has expressed. His chairmanship will likely give greater deference to Congress over taking the agency into uncharted territory.
Wheeler spent his last days at the agency laying out a defense of any Republican walk-back of his legacy, and net neutrality advocates on Capitol Hill echoed those positions after learning of Pai’s promotion Friday.
“We need an FCC that protects consumers, promotes competition, and spurs innovation,” Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey said Friday. “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.”
As a sitting commissioner, Pai will not undergo a confirmation hearing in the Senate. He will however face reconfirmation next year, a process that unseated his Democratic colleague Jessica Rosenworcel in December. Trump has yet to appoint her Democratic replacement or another Republican to serve on the five-member commission.
The FCC’s only remaining Democrat and net neutrality supporter, Mignon Clyburn, gave a defense of the rules at CES 2017 in earlier January.
While the rules aren’t perfect, she said, they do “provide the type of opportunities that edge providers, those on the floor, people in the hamlets of the country that do not currently have opportunities that may have opportunities now, with a more streamlined infrastructure framework.”