Ajit Pai wants to build a platform supportive of digital empowerment. “Are you connected or are you not” is the question he’s most focused on answering as the recently minted Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Today, as the FCC embarks upon the second Open Commission meeting since Pai’s Chairmanship began just one-month ago, the three member panel will address issues related to universal service reform, the Connect America Fund, authorizing permissive use of the ‘next generation’ broadcast television standard, revitalization of the AM radio service, the small business exemption from the open Internet enhanced reporting requirement, and comprehensive review of the FCC Uniform System of Accounts.
Pai’s agenda is robust yet simple: he’s focused on strategies for addressing the digital divide. As he noted recently during the Multicultural Media, Telecom, and Internet Council’s (MMTC) Broadband and Social Justice Forum, “there will be no higher priority in my Administration than closing the digital divide.” To meet that goal, Pai has already been busy at work advancing several proposals and practices to enhance investment and promote a regulatory climate conducive to increasing broadband deployment, adoption, and entrepreneurial innovation reliant on next generation networks and high-speed Internet connectivity.
Among his early acts, Pai extended $170 million to the Connect America Fund to provide broadband in upstate New York. The goal, he said, was “uniting to deliver digital opportunity to people who are currently on the wrong side of the digital divide.” He’s also advanced a proposal for phase two of the FCC’s Mobility Fund to ensure that every American has access to 4G LTE services. During today’s meeting, the Commission will also vote to finalize its rules for allocating $2 billion for the Connect America fund to increase fixed broadband service across the country.
Chairman Pai also authorized the creation of a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, which will advise the Commission on concrete ways to remove barriers to broadband deployment and adoption. Applications were due on February 15, 2017, and the first convening of the advisory body will take place sometime during the first quarter.
Since replacing Tom Wheeler as Chair of the FCC, Pai has also reversed action taken under the previous Commission to investigate free data services, saying “going forward, the FCC will not focus on denying consumers competitive alternatives in the marketplace. Instead, we’re going to focus on expanding broadband deployment, promoting competition, and encouraging more innovative service offerings.” Borrowing from a 2016 white paper authored by MMTC, Pai declared that “the availability of a diverse array of free data options is critical to efforts focused on closing the digital divide because they represent a viable work around to data cap costs, and are generally an appealing feature to non-adopters.”
In the early days of his Chairmanship, Pai has also been a fervent champion of Gigabit Opportunity Zones, a concept he advanced last September prior to their being any indication of who the next FCC Chairman would be. Warning of the dangers of digital redlining, where too many Americans get left behind because the business case doesn’t support broadband build out to areas that yield a low return on investment, Pai’s vision for the Gigabit Opportunity Zones is that they will “provide financial incentives for Internet service providers to deploy gigabit broadband service in low-income neighborhoods – any region, from a city block to a rural county, in which the average income is 75% or less than the national median.” They are also meant to “provide tax incentives for Internet service providers to deploy in those areas,” as well as “encourage local and state governments to make sure that their regulatory framework is one that is broadband friendly.” This framework is also meant to “encourage tax incentives of all kinds for start ups, not just in the technology space, to take advantage of this technology, to set up shop in these low-income and rural areas to create jobs so that people who are currently in those neighborhoods who have ideas, who have that entrepreneurial spirit can take advantage of it, instead of just letting those ideas whither on the vine.”
Believing that digital connectivity is “critical empowerment issue of the 21st century,” Pai is on the hunt for powerful tools and platforms that can be used in closing the digital divide that “too often separates those Americans who have, and those who do not.” His concern expands beyond members of low-income communities and includes the diverse array of Americans who live disconnected in rural America as well, which is why he’s encouraging expanded mobile carriage zones and a build out dividend for communications carriers in rural communities.
With a desire to regulate above the ultra-partisan morass that crippled the FCC’s decision-making process under the last Administration, Pai hopes to lead this new Commission in bi-partisan policymaking that serves American consumers first by leveraging progressive synergies with the corporate entities and governmental bodies responsible for ensuring that rich connectivity is not just a possibility, but a reality for all people.