FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Courts Controversy

By Sameer Rao Feb 06, 2017

President Donald Trump appointed fellow Republican Ajit Pai to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on January 23. Despite his pledges to increase regulatory transparency and bridge the "digital divide"—the term commonly used to describe the economic and cultural division between people who can afford high-speed internet access and those who cannot—the first Indian-American FCC chairman’s recent decisions have raised concerns about where his loyalties actually lie.

The New York Times reported yesterday (February 5) that Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, revoked a number of measures enacted under his Obama-appointed predecessor Tom Wheeler on Friday (February 3). One of those removals prevents nine companies—Applied Research Designs, Boomerang Wireless, Kajeet Inc., KonaTel Inc., Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico, Northland Cable Television, Spot On Networks, STS Media Inc. and Wabash Independent Networks—from participating in the Lifeline program. The Wheeler-led FCC approved the companies in two separate orders in December and January.

Lifeline began as a phone cost subsidy program for low-income Americans, and the FCC voted in March to expand Lifeline to include broadband internet access. As Mic noted at the time, the measure provides households at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line with a $9.25-per-month subsidy toward internet costs.

The program’s expansion represented a major step toward closing the digital divide. A Commission report from February 2015 found that nearly 55 million Americans don’t have access to advanced broadband, which is defined by the FCC as internet with at least 25 Mbps download speeds. The number includes nearly two-thirds of all Native Tribal land residents and 53 percent of Americans living in rural areas. Although the FCC does not release data on broadband access across most racial demographic groups, a 2014 Pew Research Center report indicates that low-income Black people transition to broadband at a lower rate than Whites.

Ars Technica reported on other measures suddenly revoked on February 3 that will impact broadband expansion and further enforcement of net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers and regulators should keep the internet open and equitable for all users. They include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Dismissing open FCC inquiries into T-Mobile, VerizonAT&T and Comcast‘s suspected violation of net neutrality by allowing paid data cap exemptions (or, in Comcast’s case, introducing a service that doesn’t count toward data limits)
  • Rescinding a report on modernizing E-rate, a program that provides internet in schools and libraries
  • Rescinding a report on reducing cybersecurity risks

Pai called the rescinded orders "midnight regulations," owing to their passing "in the waning days of the last Administration," in a statement Friday. "These last-minute actions, which did not enjoy the support of the majority of Commissioners at the time they were taken, should not bind us going forward," he said. "Accordingly, they are being revoked."

Pai’s actions prompted criticism from Mignon Clyburn, the FCC’s lone Democratic commissioner. She called the sudden actions a "Friday news dump" in one of two statements, citing a practice of agencies or individuals offering press outlets information on Friday that they don’t want many readers to see. "My office requested more than the allotted two days to review the dozen items released today," she explained. "We were rebuffed."

Clyburn specifically criticized the Lifeline designation reversal in her second statement. "Rather than working to close the digital divide, this action widens the gap," she said. "Given the serious policy concerns at stake here, I asked to have this order considered by the full Commission. But, clearly the goal was to include this in the ‘Friday News Dump,’ as my request was flatly denied."

Several digital justice advocacy groups also criticized Pai’s actions. "With these strong-arm tactics, Chairman Pai is showing his true stripes," Free Press policy director Matt Wood said in a statement Friday. "The public wants an FCC that helps people. Instead, it got one that does favors for the powerful corporations its chairman used to work for."

"The most obvious fact in our society is that high-speed Internet is astronomically expensive for the middle-class and down," said Gene Kimmelman, president of the consumer group Public Knowledge, about the Lifeline order to The Washington Post. "So in any way limiting the Lifeline program, at this moment in time, exacerbates the digital divide. It doesn’t address it in any positive way."

"I’m most concerned about the children we serve," Kajeet founder Daniel Neal told The Post. Kajeet is one of the nine companies no longer eligible for Lifeline participation. "We partner with school districts—41 states and the District of Columbia—to provide educational broadband so that poor kids can do their homework."

Pai wrote in a blog post published February 2 that he wants to bridge the digital divide during his chairmanship.