WASHINGTON – Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans on Monday to step down from his post next year, capping a four-year stint atop the nation’s telecom agency that had been marked with contentious fights over his ambitious deregulatory agenda.
President Donald Trump tapped Pai, then a Republican commissioner, to serve as his first and only FCC chairman starting in 2017. Pai ultimately presided over some of the agency’s most controversial decisions, including its highly contested effort three years ago to roll back net neutrality rules that had required internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.
His departure – widely expected, and timed to coincide with President-elect Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 – is set to unleash a wave of uncertainty at the FCC as the new administration takes shape. Biden can tap an acting chairperson from the agency’s two Democratic members once he takes the White House as he decides on a more permanent leader, which may require Senate confirmation. But it seems increasingly likely that the FCC will be deadlocked at two Democrats and two Republicans entering 2021, perhaps delaying the incoming, Biden-era commission from acting on its agenda.
“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,” Pai said in a statement, reflecting on the fact he had been the first Asian American to chair the agency. “As I often say: only in America.”
Spokespeople for Biden’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reflecting on his tenure, Pai said Monday he had paved the way for the next generation of smartphone connectivity, known as 5G, including the auction of billions of dollars in wireless spectrum. He said the commission also had continued to close the country’s persistent gaps in internet access, called the digital divide, and pointed to more recent agency efforts, including the designation of a new, three-digit code, 988, for a national suicide prevention hotline. And Pai on Monday touted his work to streamline the agency’s operations and regulations, which he described as the “most transparent FCC in history.”
“As a result, our nation’s communications networks are now faster, stronger, and more widely deployed than ever before,” he said.
In doing so, though, Pai alluded to a series of “tough choices” under his watch. Net neutrality, an issue he did not raise in his departing statement, proved to be one of the most acrimonious debates in FCC history, unleashing millions of angry comments from internet users who attacked Pai personally as he deregulated large internet providers. The unsettled legal matter now falls to Democrats at the agency who opposed a repeal in 2017 and could act to restore open-internet protections under Biden’s watch.
Pai also presided over the successful merger of Sprint and T-Mobile last year, frustrating critics who felt the agency should not have allowed the country’s third and fourth largest wireless providers to combine. But he raised “serious concerns” with Sinclair’s 2018 bid to buy Tribune, leading the Trump-aligned broadcast network to abandon its bid to expand its national footprint ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Even some of Pai’s staunchest critics said he had been effective in his chairmanship, bringing a deregulatory spirit to the FCC that rivaled the Reagan years.
“The Pai agenda, in essence, has been to limit regulatory intrusions into the activities of companies subject to the regulatory authority of the FCC, particularly if they are large incumbent [telecom] companies,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.
But Pai’s critics and foes warred over his policy legacy on Monday, much as they had in the preceding four years. Jesse Blumenthal, who leads technology and innovation policy at Stand Together, a group backed by Charles Koch, praised Pai for recognizing the “scope of power the FCC had.” He said Pai had left a “stronger, more robust, more resilient network” that has kept pace with demand at a time when the pandemic has forced millions of Americans to communicate digitally.
Schwartzman, however, said the consequences of Pai’s reign have been vast for average American internet users, leaving “fewer people who have access to broadband, fewer people who have access to diverse points of view over the air, and more people paying more for cable, wireless and wired internet connections.”
More recently, Pai in October commenced an FCC review of Section 230, a federal law that shields Facebook, Google and other tech giants from being held liable for their content-moderation practices. The announcement drew widespread criticism, coming months after the agency’s own officials privately told the White House they did not want to pursue regulation around online speech. The FCC’s early policymaking push ultimately rekindled suspicions about Trump’s interference in the independent agency’s operations, a relationship Pai has labored to deny since he took over as chairman.
Under Democratic leadership, the agency is unlikely to forge ahead with any action on Section 230. But the Biden-era FCC may struggle to advance its own agenda, as Pai’s departure creates the conditions that could lead to a deadlock on the five-member telecom agency.
Another Republican member – Commissioner Michael O’Rielly – is set to depart the FCC in the coming weeks after Trump declined to renominate him for another term. Instead, Trump has nominated Nathan Simington, an aide at the Commerce Department who was tasked with implementing the president’s directive targeting alleged anti-conservative bias on social media.
Republicans are racing to confirm Simington before the end of the year, a move that would leave the FCC in January stuck at two Democrats and two Republicans. Biden then may face additional difficulty in nominating a Democratic commissioner who could break the tie if the Senate remains under Republican control.