New FCC chairman looks to cut regulations

By Johnny Kampis

Following the departure of free-wheeling Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s new leader looks to push a limited-government agenda with more moderation and compromise.

Ajit Pai, a Republican free-market champion, was appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the FCC, which will now leans 3-2 in favor of the GOP. That could mean stark reversals by the commission on recent hot-button topics such as net neutrality and internet provider regulations.

Pai has already shelved Wheeler’s cable TV set-top box plan, which would have allowed manufacturers of third-party devices to access video programming directly from pay-TV providers so they could more easily build TV apps and devices. Wheeler hoped doing so would provide more alternatives to set-top boxes, possibly saving consumers money. Cable companies said they would rather make the apps themselves and provide them to the third-party manufacturers, a plan Pai supported.

Showing more restraint than his heavy-handed predecessor, Pai removed the set-top box issue from circulation, but the proceeding has been left open and the new chairman can still circulate a different proposal. Pai did that despite many Republicans in Congress asking him to shut the door on the issue.

That’s the kind of restraint that Tom Struble, policy counsel for TechFreedom, expected to see from the new chairman.

“Wheeler took the bull by the horns and pushed his agenda,” Struble told, noting that Wheeler led more 3-2 commission votes than any chairman in the FCC’s history. “I think [Pai] will fight to get compromise.”

That’s not to say Pai isn’t likely to fight for what he believes is right. Consider that last November, Pai tweaked Wheeler and the majority Democrats on the commission, saying they paid lip service to its biennial review of telecom regulations.

The review “is a simple and powerful tool for scrubbing outdated regulations from our books and promoting private sector innovation and investment,” he wrote. “The Commission unfortunately has treated the law in much the same way that The Dude handled bowling taunts in The Big Lebowski: ‘Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man,’” Pai wrote.

Known as a fan of pop-culture references, Pai cited Daniel Powter’s hit song “Bad Day” in a December speech at the Free State Foundation’s 10th anniversary gala luncheon before describing how the FCC’s “regulatory underbrush” is “thick.”

“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation,” he said.

A longtime D.C. attorney who previously worked as counsel for Verizon, Pai was appointed to the commission in 2012. He laid out last year a “digital empowerment agenda,” a guide he hopes Congress, the FCC and state and local governments will use to help bring high-speed internet to areas that now lack it. He advocates offering tax incentives and credits to aid private broadband deployment in low-income communities.

In November, Pai spoke about removing barriers to broadband growth at the CTIA Wireless Foundation’s Smart Cities Expo in Washington, D.C, discussing a component that could rankle states’ rights advocates: he said the FCC should use its statutory authority to preempt state and local telecom laws that cause a virtual roadblock.

“No one level of government has a monopoly on regulatory inertia,” Pai said. “That’s why federal, state and local governments all need to adopt a broadband deployment agenda that will bring 21st-century digital opportunity to American communities. We can’t let unnecessary regulations be a bottleneck that slows our march toward 5G and smart cities.”

Pai mentioned a handful of issues: long permitting processes; unreasonable fees for access to local rights of way; costs that pole owners charge for preparing for equipment attachment; a need for “dig once” policies so all road projects include plans for installing conduit for fiber-optic cables; and a model to expedite broadband deployment on federal lands. Some of those issued could be solved by Congress granting the FCC more power, he said.

“We need forward-thinking policies that will incentivize providers large and small to deploy broadband networks,” Pai said.

Calling the net neutrality issue a “quagmire,” Struble said he expects Pai to avoid pushing such controversial topics in the early days of his chairmanship.

“I think he may try to stay his hand for awhile on some of the big issues and give Congress time to pass legislation,” Struble said.

On the other hand, Struble anticipates Pai working to tweak how money from the Universal Service Fund and E-rate programs are allocated, to expedite high-speed internet development.

“On these issues I think there’s bipartisan support on how the FCC can update them to help develop broadband,” Struble said.

Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the trade group Internet Association, told NPR that Pai is open to compromise.

“While he doesn’t always agree with our industry on every issue, he is both thoughtful and willing to listen,” Beckerman said.

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