The net neutrality debate and beyond: A Rare interview with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File
FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2013, file photo, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai presents his dissent during a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearing at the FCC in Washington. The Federal Communications Commission often took stances that angered the phone and cable industries under the Obama administration. It’s already starting to lean the other way. The regulator of broadcast TV and internet services says cellphone companies that exempt some services from data caps are good for consumers after all. That effectively cuts prices for these services, usually ones owned by the phone company. But many consumer advocates say that ultimately hurts consumers by undermining other, independent services. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Recently, I was invited to sit down with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to discuss tech policy under the Trump administration. The FCC has been all over the news recently, especially in regards to net neutrality, as I’ve covered in Rare. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics in addition to the Open Internet Order, including digital privacy, broadband deployment, and the role of Congress in designing tech policy.

GIVEN: Since your appointment, there’s been two big policy changes that have caused some furious backlash from the press. First, the reversal of Obama-era privacy rules and net neutrality. Did you expect such a reaction coming into the job?

PAI: Well, I know it’s a politically polarizing time, and I realize that some of the decisions that were made by the past administration on a party-line basis, changing those decisions would engender an equal and opposite reaction if you will from those who are vested in the original decision. And so, it’s not a surprise to me at all. This has traditionally been one of the tougher jobs in Washington, DC because you’re always going to have to displease somebody. But, moving forward, what I’ve tried to bring to the job is a spirit of bipartisanship, and I continue to believe that communication policy can be an oasis from some of the vicissitudes of politics that we’ve seen in other areas. So, if you look at some of the bread and butter work the FCC has done over the past couple of months has by in large been bipartisan — getting more broadband deployment in more low-income, rural, and urban areas, streamlining some of our rules to close to digital divide. Those have been unanimous decision that I think speak to the fact that we’ve made a real effort in this administration to cross party lines.

GIVEN: It seems to me that there’s a rhetorical challenge since tech is such a difficult subject. Does the FCC have any plans to bridge that divide between the media and policymakers?

PAI: That’s a great question. Certainly speaking for myself, I always try to frame my questions, my speeches, and even my tweets in a way that will convey to the person that isn’t necessarily well-versed in the minutia of FCC policy or procedure why these issues are important, why the decisions we’re making are good for consumers. If the audience is Capitol Hill, trying to explain why this appeal to representatives or senators and their districts and states. Those are the messaging opportunities that we try to take advantage of. As you know, you can quickly become mired in a thicket of acronyms and inside FCC terms that aren’t accessible to the average person.


GIVEN: Onto the issue of the day: net neutrality. How do you envision the internet evolving with the current open internet order in place, and how do you envision it without it?

PAI: As I envision the current order remaining in place, unfortunately it seems to me that we’re going to see less infrastructure investment by internet service providers big and small, we’re going to see less competition. I mean, these are monopoly rules designed to handle Ma Bell in the 1930s, and rules like that inevitably end up leading us towards monopoly. But, if the Title II classification were removed, if we embraced more of the Clinton-era light-touch approach, I’m confident that we’ll have a flowering of investment, much more innovation and entrepreneurship on top of those networks, and at the end of the day consumers will see better, faster, and cheaper internet — especially those consumers who under the current framework are being left behind. The return on investment isn’t there for an ISP in a rural area, for instance. Those rural areas are going to be the first on the chopping block when it comes to investment decisions.

GIVEN: On that point, one common argument that policy analysts make in favor of net neutrality is that many ISPs enjoy a de facto monopoly in many parts of the country. What is the FCC doing to promote more ISP competition in those areas?

PAI: I recognize that that’s a challenge, and that many consumers have that concern as well. But, the solution is not heavy-hand, preemptive regulation inspired during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. It’s a forward-looking, market based approach that says, “Look, let’s use at all the tools in the regulatory toolbox to promote more investment in networks, especially by competitors.” So, if you look at some of the initiatives we’ve started, just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, on a bipartisan basis, we teed up a number of different ideas for promoting more wireless and wireline infrastructure investment by competitors by getting those small, scrappy upstarts better and quicker access to poles, and cheaper access to poles. Letting them have access to the conduit that goes through the ground. Making it easier to cite small cells and other wireless infrastructure that some of the smaller, wireless competitors can use in order to build a network that rivals the big guys. Those are the kind of things that I think at the end of the day, deliver far more value long-term to the American consumer because proactive, market-friendly competition is much better I think than preemptive, heavy-handed regulation in this marketplace.


GIVEN: I image all the press coverage surrounding net neutrality has distracted away from some of the FCC’s other campaigns right now. What other policy changes do you see coming down the line that you wish got more attention?

PAI: Well, certainly, broadband deployment has been priorities number one, two, and three for me. I think it’s critical that the agency does everything it can to promote internet access around the country, especially to those who currently don’t have it. So, going forward, we want to follow up on some of the infrastructure proposals that we’ve teed up, try to codify those into law. We’re going to continue to focus on the subsidy programs that we oversee to ensure that we get the biggest bang for our buck. Right now, the FCC oversees billions of dollars for potential investment every single year, and we want to make sure that those dollars are stretched as far as possible to benefit consumers. Third, we’re going to continue to look at spectrum. As the world goes wireless, it’s increasingly important for the FCC to free up as much spectrum as possible for mobile broadband. And that includes both licensed spectrum that’s used by cellular carriers as well as unlicensed spectrum that could empower the next generation of wifi or bluetooth or other technologies. Fourth and finally, and this is a critical component, we’re continuing to work with the administration and with Congress in terms of infrastructure investment. I told the White House, for example, that I think that broadband should be a critical part of any infrastructure plan that they put on the table. And, recently, I’ve told members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress that it’s important that digital infrastructure be a part of that conversation. Roads and bridges are all very important, but if we’re having a conversation about infrastructure in 2017 that doesn’t include broadband, then I think that’s a serious opportunity that we’ve missed. So, all of these things I think are on tap in the near future.


GIVEN: Speaking of Congress, the FCC like many administrations has the difficulty of regulating based on very old bills. In your case, the Communications Act in the ’30s. Are you hoping for Congress to take a more proactive approach on tech policy? And, if so, what kind of bills would you like to see coming down the line?

PAI: I think ultimately it would be very helpful for Congress to update the Act and give us the rules of the road, so to speak, that should apply in the digital area. Increasingly, where you see the FCC running into problems both legally and in policy terms is that we’re trying to shoehorn the marketplace of 2017 into a legal framework that was crafted in 1934 or 1961 or 1996, even. Whatever the merits of those legal frameworks, they’ve increasingly become yellowed with age and the courts have increasingly become skeptical about the agency’s legal authority in some of these areas. So, we would love Congress in a bipartisan way to tell us what the rules should be and we will faithfully administer it as best we can. That, I think, is the best way to both gain public support for whatever the technology policy for America should be, and also to give the agency a firmer footing for whatever decisions it makes.

GIVEN: I have a question on a very technical policy issue that I don’t even know if I completely understand, but as a Millennial it concerns me. I’ve been reading about DRM standardization. Groups like the Electronic Freedom Foundation have raise concern that this could cause big companies like Netflix to go more strongly after pirates and raise security concerns. Does the FCC have any opinion on that?


PAI: We actually don’t. So, digital rights management and intellectual property issues generally speaking lie outside of our bailiwick. So, for better or worse, the agency isn’t involved in those kind of questions. I know there are other IP-related agencies that have taken a look at this issue, but ours for better or worse isn’t one of them. We follow it from afar, but we don’t have the jurisdiction there.

GIVEN: That’s all the policy questions I have, but I do have two personal questions for you. First, what is the last book you read?

PAI: “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance. I’ve been deeply involved in that. Immediately before that, I read really an interesting book called “Lords of the Horizon,” which is a history of the Ottoman Empire and just a very incredible read about how from the start of the empire until 1918, it was a pretty wide-expansive history in a very important part of the world. I wish I had more time to read, but in addition to having two young kids, it’s been difficult to find the time.

GIVEN: Also, I have a request from a friend. Where did you get your big Reese’s cup?

PAI: (Laughs) Great question. So, my wife and I were in Hershey, Pennsylvania, we took our then only child, our son, and I saw the gift store, and I’m a big fan of coffee and a huge fan of Reese’s. When I saw this mug, I thought, “What better delivery mechanism could I find than this massive mug that holds something like six cups of coffee at one time?” So, I bought it more as a curio at the time, but it’s actually become quite functional over the years, especially now that my morning routine consists of just gulping coffee down, it’s become a vital feature of my daily routine.

GIVEN: Wonderful. That’s all the questions that I had. Thank you.

PAI: Terrific. Thanks so much, Casey. I appreciate the time.

Casey Given About the author:
Casey Given is executive Director of Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @caseyjgiven
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