(This is part 2 in a two-part series)
As discussed last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is under new leadership. Here we will look at Ajit Pai’s background, issues under the jurisdiction of the FCC, and how the new chair could impact Iowa entrepreneurs.
About Ajit Pai
Party politics aside, Ajit Pai has an impressive resume – especially for someone only in their mid-40s. A Harvard honors and University of Chicago Law graduate, he spent time as legal counsel in the U.S. Senate (for multiple committees and members), a trial attorney at the Department of Justice, and, of course, the FCC.
Net Neutrality, or the “Open Internet Order” is often a divisive philosophy and current set of regulations that, per the FCC, protects and maintains open, uninhibited access to legal online content without broadband Internet access providers being allowed to block, impair, or establish fast/slow lanes to lawful content.
Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, defended net neutrality in his final address, stating “a so-called ‘free market’ online would actually be a step back for the Internet. A hands-off approach to network oversight is more than a shift in direction, it is a decision to remove rights and move backward.”
Pai has been painted as an outspoken opponent to the Open Internet Order and has caused a flurry of negative headlines in the last few weeks upon hearing the announcement he would chair the FCC.
However, his statement released upon the net neutrality decision appears to have an underlying reason for the opposition. He states, “I am therefore disappointed that today, rather than turning to Congress, we have chosen to take matters into our own hands. It is all the more disappointing because we have been down this road before. Our prior two attempts to go it alone ended in court defeats. Even with the newfangled tools the FCC will try to pull out of its legal grab-bag, I am skeptical that the third time will be the charm.”
Pai is an attorney, and often, a reason to vote against a measure is not merely based on content, but the process. This does not mean that Pai will not try to reverse the decision. He very well could, but it wouldn’t be to stop work on it, it would be to hand it over to Congress so elected officials could be held accountable by constituents. (Note: Congress does not want to be held accountable by constituents on these matters, they like that the FCC takes the heat for anything that gets public pushback – herein lies the issue of why the FCC has jurisdiction to basically legislate from a regulatory body.)
E-Rate & Lifeline
Other programs in the jurisdiction of the FCC that have the attention from the public (especially those in education) are E-Rate and Lifeline. Last week, the FCC issued an order to reconsider the eligibility of nine companies in the Lifeline program.
In a blog post written last week by Pai (Des Moines gets a shout-out), he states that “our action only impacted 9 of the over 900 providers participating in the Lifeline program. In other words, 99% of the companies participating in the program are not affected at all.”
Read the blog post. Looking at headlines and even talking with experts in the education field these last few days made it appear that the Lifeline Program was essentially halted.
The FCC started work on E-Rate regulations (like rescinding a progress report) but nothing has been ordered or issued at this time.
What Does Ajit Pai Mean for Iowa Entrepreneurs?
Pai came through Iowa last year, meeting with entrepreneurs, business groups and giving talks, among other meetings.
“Commissioner Pai spent a few hours with us at Gravitate when he visited Des Moines in October. He was genuinely interested in what the startups in our community are building and was eager to get in on some “around the world ping-pong” with our members,” Gravitate owner Geoff Wood* said.
There is sure to be disagreement on which regulations are the most effective, but it is obvious that Pai is interested in the work in which Iowans are engaged.
Pai hails from Parsons, Kansas and understands broadband deployment issues. It is apparent that he is anxious to work on this issue and has set votes for Feb. 23, 2017 on two proposals that would have impact on broadband in rural areas. One of them would direct billions of dollars over a decade toward making sure that all parts of this country have 4G LTE coverage and the other would allocate nearly $2 billion for advancing fixed broadband service across the country.
His focus is on closing the digital divide. There are many pathways to a result. It appears the goals of the FCC has not been changed, but the path to get to the goal has. Only time will tell which theories achieve the goal – and that’s only if one party stays in power long enough to analyze results.
Susan Gentz is the deputy executive director for the Center for Digital Education and a contributing writer and commentator for Clay & Milk.
*Editor’s Note: Geoff Wood is a co-founder of Clay & Milk.