Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has announced his intention to step down as chairman on January 20, the same day that President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated.
Pai leaves the FCC after four years with multiple moves to streamline infrastructure deployment by establishing shot-clocks for review, superseding local regulations and limiting local review and undoing telecom rules that had originated during the Obama administration, such as the repeal of net neutrality regulation of broadband and a DSRC mandate that has since been shifted to sharing of the band between unlicensed and transportation communications. Pai has overseen a dramatic expansion of available spectrum, particularly in the millimeter wave bands, championed controversial incentive payments to satellite operators in exchange for rapid clearing of C Band spectrum and supported the mega-merger of T-Mobile US and Sprint on the grounds that it would advance 5G deployments and rural broadband access. While many of the controversial decisions have resulted in party-line votes, his FCC has also taken heat for some that passed with bipartisan support — including criticism from other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation, that their concerns on spectrum-related issues were ignored.
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission, including as Chairman of the FCC over the past four years. I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for
twice confirming me,” Pai said in a statement. “To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.”
He added that the FCC’s staff has “performed heroically, especially during the pandemic” and that the commission has executed a “strong and broad agenda” during his term as chair.
“Together, we’ve delivered for the American people over the past four years: closing the digital divide; promoting innovation and competition, from 5G on the ground to broadband from space; protecting consumers; and advancing public safety,” Pai said. “And this FCC has not shied away from making tough choices. As a result, our nation’s communications networks are now faster, stronger, and more widely deployed than ever before.”
Pai also said he was proud of the FCC’s productivity, citing five spectrum auctions and two rural broadband reverse auctions in four years, opening more than 1,200 megahertz of midband spectrum for unlicensed use and
“aggressively protecting our communications networks from national security threats at home and abroad.”
Pai’s resignation clears the way for the shift from a Republican majority on the FCC to a Democratic one, with the change in administration. Pai’s departure could give Democrats a 2-1 majority, or a 2-2 split depending on what happens with the ongoing nomination process. The third currently Republican seat (in addition to Pai’s and Commissioner Brendan Carr’s) is in transition, with Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s term ending this year. O’Rielly’s re-nomination to the FCC was abruptly yanked by the Trump administration, and Nathan Simington, a telecom lawyer who has been holding a senior advisor position at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration since June, was nominated to replace him. Simington recently had a nomination hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, but has yet to be confirmed and it is unclear if his nomination will be taken up before the end of the congressional session.
His exit also means that the next chairman will be tossed the hot potato of Section 230 reform, among other telecom policy issues. The prospect of changing the interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Act, which shields social media companies from liability for the content its users post, has drawn bipartisan interest (and presidential tweets) but for markedly different reasons and with very different strategies and desired outcomes.
Industry associations reacted to the news of Pai’s imminent departure with praise for his leadership of the agency.
Todd Schlekeway, president and CEO of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), said in a statement that the organization “is forever grateful to Chairman Pai for utilizing his platform at the FCC to help shine a spotlight on the prominent role that the tower technician workforce plays to enable a connected society. For example, in 2018, Chairman Pai participated in a tower climb at a site in Colorado with numerous NATE member companies in order to experience first-hand the safe work practices, diverse skill sets, knowledge base and work-ethic that are required of today’s tower technicians to conduct safe and successful wireless deployments. It was this type of proactive, roll-up-your sleeves leadership which was a hallmark of Chairman Pai’s tenure.”
“This has been a historic Chairmanship: the most spectrum freed up for commercial wireless use, long overdue reforms of 30-year-old infrastructure deployment rules, and a commitment to serving consumer needs and the broader public interest by leveraging private sector competition and innovation,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Atwell Baker in a statement. “Thanks to Chairman Pai’s leadership, we are poised to maintain our position as the world’s innovation hub and lead the emerging 5G economy.”
The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association’s president and CEO, Claude Aiken, praised Pai’s focus on expanding rural broadband access. “His dedication to reducing the digital divide, in particular in rural America, is without parallel,” Aiken said in a statement. “All of this helped American broadband consumers win and live better lives as a result. We expect he’ll be an important part of the policy discussion for years to come, and we wish him the best as he goes on to his next stage in his career.”
Pai’s departure is likely to intensify conversations around who will take over as FCC chair under the incoming administration and how quickly that person could be confirmed by the Senate. The two current Democratic members of the FCC are Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks; former FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn may also under consideration for the role, and is part of the Biden transition team focused on the FCC. That transition team is led by John Williams, who is senior counsel for the House Judiciary Committee and was previously senior counsel and senior agency official for privacy with the FCC.