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Last week, Chairman Ajit Pai led his last public open meeting, capping off almost a decade of service at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Hailing from Kansas, as the son of immigrant parents from India, Pai has been known as a fan of The Big Lebowski and enjoying his coffee in large Reese's mugs. In addition to oversized mugs, he also brought big ideas to the FCC that provided much needed agency reform and progress toward the goal of connecting all Americans.
Pai led efforts to provide greater agency transparency by requiring the drafts of major orders to be made public three weeks prior to commission meetings and votes. Previous FCC leadership had been accused of substantially changing agency proposals without provide notice to the public. Known even by some commission staff as an “economics free zone” prior to 2017, Chairman Pai oversaw the creation of the Office of Economics and Analytics to make agency decisions more data driven and examine the costs and benefits of proposed regulations.
Not only did Chairman Pai provide much needed regulatory reform to the FCC, he also led broadband expansion to help ease the digital divide. In 2016 the FCC’s Broadband Progress Report stated that 34 million Americans lacked access to broadband. Today, the current estimate by the commission has dropped to 18 million.
Broadband capital expenditures also increased during Chairman Pai’s tenure. It’s no coincidence that investment levels picked up in 2017 and continued after proposals to end public-utility treatment of the internet.
This private-sector investment led to increased deployment nationwide but also enabled the nation’s communications networks to meet the capacity demands imposed upon them by demand changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. broadband networks were able to handle the surge in many cases better than their international counterparts. The Chairman also led industry efforts to keep Americans connected despite their ability to pay because of the pandemic.
Chairman Pai also oversaw the conclusion of spectrum auctions bringing in billions of dollars in proceeds to advance the deployment of 5G. Although some controversies existed over the allocation of spectrum for fifth generation wireless technology, Pai exhibited leadership by standing up against ill-conceived calls for nationalized networks.
Although the Pai FCC is adjourning and has successfully made progress toward the goal of connecting all Americans with secure and resilient networks, much more work needs to be done. Congress recently passed the COVID-19 relief bill, which grants the Commission the $65 million it needs to fulfill its duty under the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act to accurately map broadband service in America. The bill also provides $300 million for rural broadband in a technology-neutral manner and starts up the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program to make broadband more affordable near historically Black, Hispanic, and Tribal learning institutions. More is needed to get all Americans online, especially students who are falling behind during the pandemic.
A future FCC should retain the regulatory reform instituted by Chairman Pai and work with Congress to encourage private-sector led investment in bridging the digital divide. Congress should appropriate broadband funds to areas deemed truly unserved by Broadband DATA Act maps. Additionally, Congress and the commission should permanently codify open internet principles without imposing overly burdensome regulatory frameworks on the digital economy such as Title II of the Communications Act.
Pai will leave big shoes—or in his case a big cup—to fill but the Chamber looks forward to working with those still there like Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks, who have championed ending the homework gap, and Carr who led needed permitting reform. It’s time to get all Americans connected.