Ajit Pai named FCC chairman

President Donald Trump has designated Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai to replace outgoing FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler (see "FCC Chairman Wheeler to resign January 20, 2017"). Pai, a consistent critic of Wheeler's policies as a Republican FCC commissioner, is expected to oversee a dismantling of many of Wheeler's signature initiatives, including Net Neutrality.

President Donald Trump has designated Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai to replace outgoing FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler (see "FCC Chairman Wheeler to resign January 20, 2017"). Pai, a consistent critic of Wheeler's policies as a Republican FCC commissioner, is expected to oversee a dismantling of many of Wheeler's signature initiatives, including Net Neutrality.

"I am deeply grateful to the President of the United States for designating me the 34th Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission," Pai said in a statement posted on the FCC's website. "I look forward to working with the new Administration, my colleagues at the Commission, members of Congress, and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans."

Pai's fellow commissioners offered congratulations. "I congratulate Commissioner Ajit Pai on being named Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Ajit is bright, driven, and committed to bringing connectivity to all Americans," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "I am hopeful that we can come together to serve the public interest by supporting competition, public safety, and consumer protection."

Clyburn, alongside Wheeler and fellow Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, helped form a Democratic majority that pushed through Wheeler's programs in the face of dissent from Pai and fellow Republican Michael O'Rielly. She will now find herself on the other side of the 3-2 dividing line should she stay onboard. The identity of her Democratic companion remains uncertain; confirmation of Rosenworcel's nomination for a new term has been held up in Congress.

O'Rielly's support of Pai's designation was much more effusive. "I offer my sincere congratulations and best wishes to my friend and colleague, Commissioner Ajit Pai, for being designated as Chair of the FCC. His thoughtful approach, deep knowledge base, and sense of humor have been great assets to the Commission, and it makes sense that President Trump hand-picked him to carry out the new Administration's broad vision for the agency," O'Rielly said. "I know the Commission will thrive under his leadership, and I look forward to working with him and his team to tackle the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities that will present themselves."

Pai's agenda

Those "opportunities" likely will include repeal or a lack of enforcement of Net Neutrality/Open Internet, the cessation of efforts to open the market for set-top boxes, as well as new business services initiatives Wheeler had begun. Reports have suggested some Republican strategists would like to weaken the FCC's role in consumer protection as well.

Overall, the FCC under Pai is expected to reduce the number of regulations that pertain to service delivery. Communications industry association USTelecom echoed this belief in its statement of support. "We share Commissioner Pai's vision for a ‘Broadband First' future based on a bold but pragmatic strategy to erase the many regulatory barriers impeding the expansion of our nation's communications infrastructure, and the jobs and economic opportunity that depend on it," said USTelecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter. "I am excited to work with the new chairman -- as well as with the new Administration and Congress -- to advance policies, partnerships, and programs that will bring broadband's benefits to all our families, communities, and businesses, and ensure our nation's telecommunications innovators can invest and compete on a level regulatory playing field."

Spalter's reference to a "level regulatory playing field" may allude to Wheeler's support of municipal broadband efforts, which USTelecom and others have asserted are inherently unfair to incumbent service providers. Wheeler had gone as far as attempting to use the FCC's authority to overturn state laws restricting municipal broadband efforts; that effort was struck down in court (see "Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals slaps down FCC municipal networks ruling").

The Fiber to the Home Council North America, whose membership includes several municipal broadband providers, chose to highlight Pai's stated support for broadband in its comments.

"Commissioner Pai has shown himself to have a deep understanding of communications law and how that law impacts the growth of our modern communications networks and consumers' access to those networks. His common sense approach to regulation and his forward-looking plans, like his Gigabit Opportunity Zones proposal, are the sort of policies necessary to stimulate investment in our networks without chilling effects on innovation," said Heather Burnett Gold, president of the FTTH Council North America. "The FTTH Council looks forward to continuing to work with Commissioner Pai to tackle the big issues we face, including future-proofing our networks to expand broadband access and digital opportunity to all Americans."

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