Ajit Pai was officially named by President Donald Trump as the new chairman of the FCC on Monday, a move that’s drawing a mixed response from incumbent telcos and consumer groups.
Three of the largest telcos—AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier, which have been critical of the previous FCC regime run by Tom Wheeler—were quick to praise Pai’s appointment. AT&T has continually advocated for a light-touch regulatory approach that it claims will drive large incumbent telcos to make more investments in their networks.
“Chairman Pai will work with his fellow Commissioners to quickly and decisively put back in place the commonsense regulatory framework necessary to support the President’s agenda for job creation, innovation and investment,” said Bob Quinn, senior EVP of external and legislative affairs for AT&T.
CenturyLink, which had also been a staunch opponent of net neutrality and business data services (BDS) reform, struck a similar tune in its statement.
John Jones, SVP for public policy and government relations for CenturyLink, said that he hopes Chairman Pai will free large telcos from what he says are burdensome regulations.
“We look forward to continuing to work with Commissioner Pai, who will bring a much-needed free market approach to his new role,” Jones said. “Hopefully this will result in the thoughtful elimination of outdated, unnecessary federal regulations that stifle investment and no longer reflect rapidly evolving consumer demands and the entry of innovative, new competitors.”
Rural broadband hopes
Another key hope that telcos like Frontier and industry groups like the NTCA hope Pai will drive during his chairmanship is eliminating barriers to rural broadband expansion.
Being from a small Kansas town, Pai appears to be supportive of developing a new rural broadband policy.
Pai said in a speech (PDF) he gave last September in Cincinnati that he wants the FCC to find ways to extend more broadband services to economically challenged areas by providing financial incentives for internet service providers to deploy gigabit broadband services in low-income neighborhoods in what he calls Gigabit Opportunity Zones.
Under Pai’s proposed rural broadband plan, the FCC would provide financial incentives for ISPs to deploy gigabit broadband services in low-income neighborhoods. The plan would also give local governments incentives to make it easy for service providers to deploy these networks.
“Gigabit Opportunity Zones would be a powerful tool for closing the digital divide that too often separates the haves from the have-nots,” Pai said in his speech. “They would promote the spirit of entrepreneurship where it is needed the most. And they would be a major step towards empowering every American community to take control of its own destiny in the digital age.”
Frontier, whose footprint is mainly rural, has been expanding its broadband footprint through the CAF-II fund. The telco said it wants to work with Pai to expand its rural footprint further.
“Frontier looks forward to working with Chairman Pai and the Commission on issues of critical importance to our country, such as expanding broadband deployment in rural America and updating FCC regulations to promote next-generation technologies,” Frontier said.
NTCA, an advocacy group that represents rural telcos, said Pai has dedicated time to finding ways to enhance rural broadband opportunities.
“In an address to the NTCA membership in early 2013, Commissioner Pai was the first of his colleagues to call for universal service to enable broadband services in areas served by our members, and Commissioner Pai has consistently placed a spotlight on the kinds of resources and resourcefulness needed to connect America,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, in a statement. “Having grown up in a small town in Kansas and noting in his address to NTCA members that ‘rural America is different,’ he has a deep and genuine understanding of how the services that NTCA members deliver improve the quality of life and promote economic development in our rural communities.”
Caution on antiregulations
Despite his promises to inject life into rural broadband, a number of consumer advocacy groups like New America's Open Technology Institute are concerned that he will work to overturn net neutrality and other consumer-friendly measures.
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, sent President Donald Trump a letter on Monday arguing that Pai is "not a supporter of the FCC’s strong rules to protect an open internet, putting at risk our robust net neutrality rules and the three million internet economy jobs it supports."
Sarah Morris, director of open internet policy for New America's Open Technology Institute, was equally critical of Pai’s appointment.
“Throughout his tenure at the FCC, Commissioner Pai has been a steadfast opponent of net neutrality and consumer privacy rules, and a rubber stamp for mega-mergers,” Morris said in a statement. “His anti-regulatory agenda is a gift to telecom lobbyists and a major threat to consumers, small businesses, and the American economy.”