What Trump’s New FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, Means for the Media

Who is Ajit Pai?

President Trump appointed Ajit Pai, 44, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on January 23, 2017. Pai is currently serving out the term of his predecessor, Obama-appointee Tom Wheeler, who vacated the role upon President Trump’s inauguration.

Pai received his undergraduate education from Harvard University and his J.D. from the University of Chicago. Prior to his commissioner position, Pai worked for the Department of Justice, Verizon Communications and the FCC Office of General Counsel. He also worked at a law firm until President Obama nominated him to the FCC board.

How did he become FCC chairman?

Prior to his nomination for FCC chairman, Pai served as the FCC’s senior Republican commissioner and the only Republican commissioner on the FCC board. Normally, the board consists of five members, but it is currently down to three. Former President Obama nominated Pai as a commissioner to the board in 2012, and Pai began his term after Senate confirmation.

President Trump named Pai chairman soon after taking office. Some say Pai’s South Asian heritage also played a role in Trump’s choice to nominate him, especially after the new Presidential cabinet came under fire for lacking diversity.

What was he like as an FCC commissioner?

With extensive experience in communications law, Pai is what colleagues have called a “lawyer’s lawyer.” Pai has insider knowledge on how policies pertain to media and communication are crafted and administered, but often leaned politically toward less regulation, rather than more, in the communication sector. These frustrations manifested in some tension on the board, with only a few conservative proposals passing, as Pai expressed that he felt former Chairman Wheeler led the Commission with an overly liberal influence.

As commissioner, broadband deployment—finding solutions to bring cable access to Americans all over the country—was Pai’s top priority during his tenure as a commissioner. In 2015, he led a push to facelift the AM radio band, which passed, and he was able to create a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee in less than a month from the time of his nomination to chairman.

Where does he stand on the issues?

Pai lays out a broad spectrum of his policy beliefs on his FCC website:

  • Pai strongly opposes net neutrality, saying he would “fire up the weed whacker” on removing internet service provider regulations that he believes are “are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”
  • Pai wants to replace copper broadband lines with fiber optics, and he believes that broadband access should be available to all Americans.
  • In terms of First Amendment rights, Pai has stated that he believes in the protection of free speech in all realms.
  • Pai wants 9-1-1 to be available to people at all times, and would like to see an internet-based 9-1-1 emergency system rolled out in the future.

What has he done so far as Chairman?

So far, Pai has advocated for greater transparency in the FCC and issued a plethora of reforms upon being named to the position, such as the creation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. Pai also made waves after defeating a potential plan from 2013 that would have allowed in-flight cell phone calls. He also hopes to roll out a 5G data system at some point that maximizes investment in the technology.

What do people think could happen in the future with Pai as Chairman?

In addition to a potential rollback on net neutrality, it’s suspected that Pai may strive to get rid of the Lifeline program, which gives low-income households access to telecommunications technology, like cellphones and cable TV. He also wants to let cable box providers outsource their box production to third-party businesses, and to find solutions to limit robocalls as well.

What do Pai’s critics have to say about him?

Aside from those who criticize Pai’s net neutrality reversal goals, concerns exists that Pai’s movement toward changing net neutrality laws could also revoke internet privacy laws. Presently, the FCC has oversight on internet service providers thanks to the net neutrality policies passed in 2015. However, should those laws be overturned, internet privacy rights included in those policies may also be removed, meaning that providers can sell data like users’ browsing history and app use to interested companies. Some Democrats are also worried about Pai’s perceived “lack of transparency” concerning how he views the media and journalists’ rights.  

These concerns, along with Pai’s future performance, could spell trouble when 2018 rolls around. In order to maintain his role past the term’s expiration in 2018, Pai will require Senate confirmation, which he did not need as he succeeded former Chairman Wheeler in the middle of his term.

While Pai is still freshly minted in the chairman’s seat, he will likely draw the eyes of both the media and the public as major media business events in the future.

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