The chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has announced he will leave his position on January 20 as President-elect Biden is sworn in. Pai’s tenure has been a controversial one, and while he would almost certainly like to be remembered for his efforts to “bridge the digital divide,” as he was fond of saying, it is the dismantling of net neutrality that will be his legacy.
It is traditional at the FCC for the chairman to leave when the administration changes parties. Pai took over when Tom Wheeler, who chaired the commission at the end of the Obama years, resigned upon Trump’s election. The Biden administration has not announced its pick for the new leader of the communications agency.
In an official FCC memo, Pai thanked his colleagues and summarized the accomplishments of his four years at the helm (as, it must also be said, the first commissioner of Asian descent):
Together, we’ve delivered for the American people over the past four years: closing the digital divide; promoting innovation and competition, from 5G on the ground to broadband from space; protecting consumers; and advancing public safety.
I am proud of how productive this commission has been, from commencing five spectrum auctions and two rural broadband reverse auctions in four years, to opening 1,245 megahertz of midband spectrum for unlicensed use, to adopting more than 25 orders through our Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, to aggressively protecting our communications networks from national security threats at home and abroad, to designating 988 as the three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and much, much more.
Notably absent from that list is Pai’s unfortunate magnum opus and arguably the effort that got him the job: The elimination of 2015’s net neutrality rules. The tremendously dishonest and partisan campaign to overturn these popular and important curbs on broadband companies put a stink on Pai’s tenure at the outset that no amount of good work could wash out.
For as always, the bulk of the FCC’s duties fly under the public’s radar, and a great deal of work was done under Pai, as under any other administration, invisibly and thanklessly. (Though in some cases less invisibly than before — Pai’s FCC did make improvements to transparency, in some ways anyhow.)
Surely Pai’s greatest priority was, as indeed he often stated, ameliorating the “digital divide” that prevents millions of Americans from enjoying affordable, fast internet. Numerous new programs and funds were created to improve this situation, but Pai was hampered by bad information — essentially provided on the honor system by ISPs themselves — and the seemingly endless rollout of 5G, which we’re all still waiting on.
His final effort, alas, will not much improve the opinion of him at large. As Trump raged impotently about Section 230, a law that shields internet companies from liability for the actions of their users, Pai took up that flag and announced his intention to revisit and perhaps change the interpretation of it — a month before the election. The simpering, plainly political nature of the effort, almost certain now to be aborted entirely, attracted considerable criticism, makes for a poor final chapter in an already troubling story.
The next step for the FCC is the nomination and confirmation of a new chairman and replacement commissioners, and though several names have been floated by political insiders, no one has emerged yet as the heir apparent.