Deep Dive Episode 149 – A Conversation with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

On November 30, 2020, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai joined the Federalist Society’s Columbia Student Chapter for a wide-ranging discussion on net neutrality, Section 230, and more, in an online Q&A co-sponsored by the Regulatory Transparency Project.

Brad Larson, the Columbia Student Chapter’s Regulatory Transparency Project Series Chair, hosted the discussion.


Although this transcript is largely accurate, in some cases it could be incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

[Music and Narration]


Introduction:  Welcome to the Regulatory Transparency Project’s Fourth Branch podcast series. All expressions of opinion are those of the speaker.


Jack Derwin:  On November 30, 2020, FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, joined The Federalist Society’s Columbia Law Student Chapter for a wide-ranging discussion on net neutrality, Section 230, and more. The following is the live audio for that event. We hope you enjoy the interesting discussion.


Brad Larson:  It’s my pleasure to introduce the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai. Chairman Pai earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, and is J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. After graduating from law school, Chairman Pai clerked in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and then worked in the Antitrust Division for the Department of Justice. After working in a number of positions, in both the public and private sector, President Obama appointed Chairman Pai to serve as the FCC Commissioner in 2012. In 2017 President Trump appointed and the Senate confirmed Chairman Pai to serve as the Chairman of the FCC. 


During his tenure at the FCC, Chairman Pai oversaw the repealing of the controversial net neutrality principle and recently, he released a statement pledging to clarify Section 230 of the Communications Act. Chairman Pai, welcome to the online version of Columbia Law School, and thanks for coming.


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Hey, thanks so much to you, to the Columbia Law School, The Federalist Society for hosting this event. I apologize profusely for being late. The travails of the technological world in which we live in, and without WiFi, we’re kind of held back. But anyway, it’s been a momentous day, momentous time at the Commission, and I look forward to the Q&A exchange.


Brad Larson:  Yeah, thank you. I guess if you want to jump right into the Q&A, I think that would be fantastic, if that works for you.


Hon. Ajit Pai:  That’d be terrific. I mean, I’d be happy to drone on and on about telecom regulation, but I suspect it might be of greater interest in supposing some of the questions that you might have. Like I said, happy to vamp, though, if you want.


Brad Larson:  Oh that’s fine. We have our — people have already submitted some questions, so I would —


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Oh, terrific, okay.


Brad Larson:  — find some of these and we can fire away. So the first question that kind of makes sense, especially given the events of the last few weeks and today is, what was it like to serve under two rather different administrations? Obviously, in two different roles, but just what was that like for you?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s certainly a tumultuous political environments during the eight years in which I have served. But the good news is, the FCC, as an independent agency, is generally speaking, immune from the political distances within the Executive Branch, or between the Executive and Legislative Branches. And so even though I served, of course, as a Commissioner in the Obama administration, and then Chairman in this one, generally speaking, with the exception of a few high-profile matters, it hasn’t been all that political, believe it or not.


On some issues, like net neutrality, or even Section 230 of course, the agency has gained prominent views. Prominence in the sense of some of the political issues of the day, but generally speaking, spectrum issues, rural broadband, designating 988 as a three-digit number for suicide prevention and mental health, the bread-and-butter work that we do has generally not been something that has known a party affiliation. So it’s certainly been an interesting time leading the agency over the last four years, but I wouldn’t say it’s especially because of the political affiliation of the President during the previous administration or the in this one.


Brad Larson:  Thank you. We have someone asking, what was your thought process behind releasing the October 15th statement on Section 230?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah. So it was basically this. I mean, if you look back almost three years to the day, I made a speech about social media companies, in which I said, look, we need to have insights into how they’re making decisions and how they aren’t. And there’s no transparency there. And one of the things that has grown over the last couple of years is a bipartisan recognition in the halls of Congress, and even between the presidential candidates this year, that there is an issue here that needs to be considered.


And so our narrow part of that involves Section 230, itself, the immunity provision, which is imbedded in the Communications Act. And which, under Section 201(b) of the Communications Act, as well as the Supreme Court decisions in AT&T v. Iowa Utilities Board in 1988, the FCC does have the legal authority to interpret terms within the Communications Act, and that one specifically.


And so all I proposed to do on October 15th was to take a look at that particular immunity provision. Not the broader questions that we see debated on social media, or on T.V., or whatever, but that narrow immunity provision. What do the terms “good faith” mean, for example. These are typically considered to be ambiguous terms and should the FCC take a look at giving them meaning in the context of a rulemaking. 


So it’s much — depending on your point of view, anyway, it’s much less, or much more I suppose, than meets the eye.


Brad Larson:  Yeah, thank you. So we’ve got a question from an attendee here that says, there was a lot of “sky is falling” rhetoric surrounding the repeal of net neutrality. I’m sure you were expecting some of these questions.


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Oh, yeah. Of course.


Brad Larson:  Do you feel the insulation of being within an independent agency helped you push forward with the policy that you thought was best?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  That’s an interesting question. I never thought about the status of the agency contributing. I would say probably no. Because, you know, this issue’s been kicking around for a long time. And notwithstanding the agency’s independence, it just requires somebody to make a decision that even if it proves controversial in the near-term, nonetheless, has long-term value. 


And that certainly applies in this case. I mean, as the questioner raised, there were all kinds of ridiculous predictions on December 14, 2017. Bernie Sanders saying that this was literally the end of the internet as we know it. You’re going to have to pay $5 per tweet. You’re not going to be able to access certain websites and millions of people are going to lose access to the internet, all together.


My favorite, though, was on February 28th, I believe it was — I’m sorry, 26th it was of 2018, the entire Senate Democratic Caucus tweeting out, if we lose net neutrality, you will get the internet one word at a time. Fast forward to today, internet speeds in the United States for fixed broadband are 100 percent faster than they were in December of ’17 when we made that decision, according to Ookla, an independent analysis. Not our own. 


And so we’ve demonstratively proven, over the last couple of years that the regulatory model we’ve reestablished, the market-based model, was the right one. And this is the model that started in the Clinton administration, served us well from 1996 until 2015. And notwithstanding all of the insanity of 2017 and a little bit thereafter, I think we’ve been proven right in the court of objective facts.


Brad Larson:  So kind of a follow-up to that. What was it like going from someone who had worked in public sector, private sector, under different administrations, you know, not exactly a household name among people who aren’t big into telecoms or law, to be thrown into the front and center social media blender? What is that like, as a person?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  It’s a little weird, I will say. I mean, obviously, I’m a lawyer by training, as you mentioned during the introduction. And you know, my entire career to this point has been spent, essentially, looking at a screen or a piece of paper, writing, editing, researching, that sort of thing. And I haven’t really had that much public exposure, even as a Commissioner. As the first FCC Commissioner on Twitter back in 2012, and even then, I don’t think I had gotten a lot of sense of what it was like to be better known.


But I think it really hit me, not so much during the net neutrality stuff, of course that was the apex of it. But about a year ago, I was in Japan for some work meetings. And on a Sunday, I had the weekend off. So I thought, yeah, I’ll just go look at some of these museums. And so I was walking through one of them, really crowded museum, unshaven, wearing a nondescript t-shirt and jeans. And these two kids, Japanese kids, came up to me and asked, are you Ajit Pai? And I was like totally taken aback, and I was like, yeah I am. So can we take a selfie with you? Did you bring the mug, you know, the Reese’s mug? And it’s sort of weird to think, halfway around the world, two people have been following us well enough to know who I am, what I look like, what I look like in character, so to speak. It was just kind of weird. 


But on the less pleasant side, obviously, it’s been a difficult time for my family and in some cases for me. Just people coming to the house and sending us unmarked packages, or threatening to kill my kids, or stuff like that. You know that part of it, I don’t hope will be visited upon any of my successors. That’s not the way America should be. But nonetheless, generally speaking, I’ve had a pretty thick skin when it comes to some of the blow-back. And you have to have it in any of these jobs. 


So it is. It has been very weird. My friends who’ve known me for a long time, from grade school all the way through law school, like dude, it’s kind of weird. My kids are talking to me about you. I see your name on TV. It’s just the kind of shy, awkward dork they know has kind of morphed into something bigger than that. So it’s a little odd.


Brad Larson:  Yeah, I have to imagine though, quite the experience there.


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah, to say the least. 


Brad Larson:  What do you think the biggest challenge the FCC will face moving forward in an era where it seems the FCC is now really at the front and center of a lot of, both, political arguments and not as political issues?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  You know, I think the biggest one—I know this is highly abstract—is to have courage. I mean, one thing you can say about the FCC over the last four years, you may agree with what we’ve done. You may disagree with it. But you cannot dispute that we have made the tough choices. Net neutrality is one example of that, of course, but it’s not the only one. 


Some of the decisions we made on 5G, for example, making more spectrum available for the commercial marketplace, has not been easy. There is a profile written about me over the summer, for example, Ajit Pai battles the DoD, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and lists all these other alphabet soup agencies. That’s because we’ve had to make the difficult decisions to make the spectrum, these public airwaves, available for the public. And a lot of the entrenched incumbents don’t necessarily like that.


Same thing when it comes to some of the other issues that we’ve tackled, from inmate calling service regulation, to designating 988 as a number for suicide prevention and mental health. And we faced all of these difficult challenges. And you know, it would be easy to just pack up shop and say, okay, we’re not going to move on this, when we get an objection from another federal agency, from a senator or congressman, or from a private entity. But we’ve decided to take on those challenges. 


And I think the important thing for the agency in the years to come is going to be to continue to step up to the plate and take swings. And not just bunts and the odd double here and there. But to really swing for the fences. Because that’s ultimately the way you create much more long-term value for the American consumer. 


So it hasn’t been easy. But I do think that, in time, the value of our decisions is going to be recognized. And hopefully, future FCC’s will see it the same way, too.


Brad Larson:  Yeah, thank you. You mentioned there kind of tussling back and forth with other agencies. Kind of moving off a previous question about being an independent agency. How does that exactly work, when either it’s two independent agencies, or an independent agency, and then a cabinet agency? What is that process, by which those issues get sorted out?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  It’s a good question. So it’s typically between the FCC and one of those Executive Branch agencies. So essentially, the way our framework is structured in the United States is, the FCC has jurisdiction over all spectrum issues, as it relates to the commercial marketplace. The Department of Commerce, through something known as The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, has stewardship over spectrum that is used by the federal government. 


So for example, when I came into office, some 60 percent of all of the airwaves that were usable for mobile broadband services, and other services like that, were held by federal agencies—the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, NASA, NOAA, FAA, you name it. So from our perspective, at least, when we encountered a spectrum band that was usable for 5G that many people have identified, in some cases for years, the only thing I could do was to go hat-in-hand through the interagency process the NTIA leads, to say we want to free up this band of spectrum. We want to get your feedback on it from the federal agency perspective. Let us know what you think.


And you know, we had made a lot of progress, no doubt about it. But it was not easy, at all. And so, for example, if you google “FCC 5G” and “Weather Forecasting,” you’ll see all these claims from the National Weather Service, and NOAA, and all these others, saying that the FCC’s moves to free up the 24 gigahertz spectrum is going to end weather forecasting. 


We recently freed up 45 megahertz of the 5.9 gigahertz band for WiFi. Bipartisan, unanimous, FCC did that. But if you google that, you’ll see the Department of Transportation saying, this is going to increase the number of accidents that happen on the road. 


Same thing with every single one of these bands. You’re always going to find some federal agency, or some private company that might have an incumbency interest in this band saying, “We’re all in favor of U.S. leadership in 5G, just not in this band.” And so that’s another situation where the FCC traditionally has said, “Okay, well we’ll leave it alone. We’ll study it, kick it to a commission, let our successors deal with it.” But to me, at least, that is not why we are called to these jobs. We’re called to these jobs to make the difficult decisions. 


And as I’m often fond of saying, Gandalf, in Lord of the Rings, when he’s advising Frodo says — when Frodo is commiserating with, oh, I wish the ring had never come to me. What Gandalf says is very instructive for people in my position, “That is not for you to decide. All that is left for you to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” 


I was very determined, in the four years that I’ve had in this job, to make those tough calls. To broch the opposition from these federal agencies, or these powerful private interests. Because ultimately, my client is the public interest. It’s not this agency and it’s not a corporation. It’s the public interest. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.


Brad Larson:  You know, you mentioned a second ago, hitting home runs instead of bunt singles, or whatever it may be. How can an agency like the FCC balance the need to be nimble, not in the face of technological developments, and try to really stay on top of these things, while still respecting statutory limitations on their power?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah, I think you can do both. And one of the things that flummoxed me when I was a Commissioner serving during the previous administration was, not only were they not making the bold choices. But the choices they were making, I didn’t think necessarily comported with the rule of law. And if you look at it, the record of the previous FCC, I think it was seven, or maybe eight, decisions that we rendered were reversed from following petitions for review in the D.C. Circuit, or things of the sort. 


And so we, over the last four years, have turned a very different course. My challenge consistently to our team is, let’s chart a bold agenda, let’s make sure that anything we are doing is based on sound principles of economics and sound technical analysis, but also comports with the law. And overall, we’ve had, I think reasonably construing it, only one loss in the court of appeals. Everything else has pretty much been a victory, including net neutrality, I would add. And so that’s because we’ve been able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Walking, in terms of setting a bold agenda. And chewing gum, in terms of staying carefully within the four corners of the law as set forth by Congress. And ultimately, I think our record in court is something I’m exceptionally proud of, given the bold agenda that we’ve charted.


Brad Larson:  All right. We’ve got another question here, switching the topics up a little bit. This one reads, following up on Section 230, there seems to be an appetite on both sides of the aisle for substantial reform on big-tech regulation. After all the backbone of FCC regulations was passed in 1934, so an update might be warranted. What are the major issues you think Congress should address, if any?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Well, certainly that’s a decision that Congress is going to have to make. And one of things I think is amazing, given the passage of time, is how there seems to be a bipartisan recognition among Republicans and Democrats, Senators and Representatives that they believe, at least, change is needed.


And as I said, virtually every candidate that I saw speaking about this issue, suggested that there should be reforms to Section 230. As to what shape those reforms should take, or even what committee should be handling them, whether it’s the Energy and Commerce Committee or Judiciary Committees in House, or the Senate Commerce Committee or Senate Judiciary Committee in the Senate, I leave up to them. But it is interesting how the conversation has changed.


As I said three years ago, when I made this speech, in which I outlined what the FCC was planning to do with respect to repealing Title II of the so called net neutrality regulations, I pointed out then that the social media companies, which ironically were pushing for these net neutrality regulations themselves, were completely unregulated and they weren’t transparent. And at the time, I got some blowback, “Well, these are the golden children of the internet economy. No one can criticize them,” but it’s incredible how the times have shifted now. 


I think if anything unites people in Washington, now, it’s their belief, rightly or wrongly, that these social media companies have been skating for too long. And so we’ll see what Congress decides to do. And it’ll be interesting to see this thing play out.


Brad Larson:  Thank you. We have a pretty direct question here, next. What’s your plan for January 21st and beyond that?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah. So part of the reason why I was late, I apologize for that again, is I announced today, as a matter of fact, that my intention is to step down from the FCC on January 20, 2021. It’s been a great run over the last eight plus years, I guess it has been. But it’s time for a new adventure. And so that adventure starts on January 21st. As to what it will be, I’m going to take some time and think about it. I’ve often joked, well not really joked because I really would do these things, but I would love to replace Judge Judy. And I would love, as a washed up, slow 47-year-old, to be a slot receiver for my hometown team, the Kansas City Chiefs. 


But assuming those two options are off the table, it’ll be time to think about what the next step should be. And one of the things that I’ve found over the course of my career, and I would certainly recommend it to any of you, even though you’re entering a marketplace eventually that is vastly different from the one I found in 1997, when I graduated from law school, is to just really keep your options open, but to do the best job you can in whatever it is that you’re doing. And that’s something that’s served me well in my career. 


I’ve had a very non-linear career path. And all three branches of the government, the private sector, and now in several different jobs, even in the FCC. But I would like to think that the opportunity rises to meet the person who is willing to take on the challenge. So we’ll see what that opportunity is for me. But I have faith that things will work out. And yeah. I can’t wait to see what happens.


Brad Larson:  All right. Kind of going on the more meta-questions here. What is your number one thing that you think you’ve done for society for your legacy, and otherwise because it’s odd to ask someone who’s still not all too old about their legacy, but you’ve done a lot since graduating in 1997, so I think that’s probably a fair question?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah, no. See I’m 23 years out of law school now. And I’m sad to say, it’s gone by in the blink of an eye. But you know, over the last four years, we’ve done a ton. I mean, my top priority has been closing the digital divide, and I’m really proud about the progress we’ve made on that front. 


One of the last visits I did before the pandemic ended our travel was to the Wind River Reservation in Ethete, Wyoming. And I had a chance to visit with the Norther Arapahoe Tribal Elders who told me that, thanks in part to the FCC’s grant and some other policies, they were able to build a high-speed gigabit fiber broadband network, in some cases, to link the tribal healthcare clinic, school, and some residences in the middle of a very rural, very low-income part of Wyoming, to the internet. And notwithstanding all the sound and fury about net neutrality you hear on Twitter, or whatever, what really matters to me is those efforts we made on closing the digital divide. Real people who were able to see concrete benefits as a result of our decisions.


Same thing with respect to 5G. I mean, promoting American leadership has been a major priority. We’ve held five major spectrum auctions over the last four years. After having one in the previous four years before that. And we have more poised in 2021 that we’ve already lined up. And we’ve seen wireless infrastructure deployed at a much higher scale. Some 87,000 small cells deployed over the last three years, which is 10x what we saw in the previous four years combined. Fiber deployment records set in 2018 and 2019. So in terms of 5G leadership and infrastructure development, I feel very positive.


And then some of the things that might not be household names for those who follow the FCC, but are really important to me, nonetheless, and I mentioned this a little bit earlier, establishing 988 as a three-digit number for suicide prevention and mental health. I am quite confident that that will save thousands of lives in the time to come, to connect people directly to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That number will become active in July 2022, and I can’t wait to see how that [inaudible 00:21:25] takes place.


And then, again, where things like regulating the inmate calling services market. Again, not a marketplace that springs to people’s minds. But for those who are incarcerated, especially during the pandemic, who social isolation keeping them from seeing loved ones in person, that connection to the outside world is critical. And so kickstarting the initiative to regulate, both the interstate, which we have jurisdiction over, and intrastate, which state and local jurisdictions — governments have jurisdiction over, that has been something that is going to deliver value. So those types of consumer-friendly initiatives, I think, are going to be really important.


The other critical part of the legacy, that I do hope that every FCC will observe from now on, is the transparency initiatives. When I came into office, for example, for many years, it had never been done before that the FCC would actually publish the proposals and orders it was going to vote on in its monthly meetings in advance. We would vote. And then after that, the FCC would make public what it was we voted on. That struck me as insane. But I was told for many years, as a Commissioner, no, we can’t do it for legal reasons, for policy reasons, etc.


My second week in office, we changed that. We now publish, routinely, all of the things we’re going to vote on at least three weeks in advance. I put it on the internet so anyone can see it. That allows everybody to have insight into what the agency is proposing to do. Again, you might like it, you might not. But at least you’ll know in advance and be able to have your say. And that kind of process reform, I think, is going to be really critical in the time to come. 


So we’ve done a lot, and I look forward to sharing more about that in the next couple months.


Brad Larson:  This summer, the FCC bumped heads a little bit with China and Chinese companies. How do you see that relationship developing in the future?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  It’s going to be a tough one. Look, this is a larger geopolitical confrontation that is happening. So it certainly goes beyond the FCC’s bailiwick. But within the FCC’s scope, I think there has been a lot of work that we’ve done.


For example, prohibiting the use of money from our Universal Service Fund from being used by telecom companies in the United States on equipment and services that come from companies like Huawei, and ZTE that are subject to Chinese jurisdiction. Also working with the Department of Commerce, the intelligence community, national security agencies, and others, to make sure that we either keep out companies that pose national security threats to the United States, if they interconnected with our networks, or withdrawing the authority for those that have already been granted authorization. That’s one of the things that we’re considering, as well. 


So it’s really been a challenge here, in the United States. One of the unusual parts of the job, at least my job, that has gone — that I didn’t expect before, was the international component of the work. Within the last three and a half years, I visited a bunch of different countries, from Malaysia, to Israel, India, to Germany, where I’ve had a chance to share our views on 5G security with our counterparts, and others in foreign governments, and hear their thoughts about 5G security, as well. And for a while, we got some critiques here in the U.S., well you know this isn’t a productive use of time, we’re not seeing any results. But actually, over the last couple of months, we’re seeing a tremendous amount of momentum, as governments and private companies of foreign countries are making the decision to embrace the U.S.-based vision of a risk-based framework for 5G security.


So this is an issue that’s going to be a hot one for many, many years to come. And here, too, I would hope that this vision of 5G security, and just security issues generally, would not know a party affiliation, that we would all see that we’re in it together. And we need to confront the threats that we face together. And if we do that, I think we’ll be successful, which I do think in the long run we will be.


Brad Larson:  Thank you. We’ve got a couple different people asking about what advice you have for law students, specifically those who are interested in working in telecoms. And seems you’d be a good person to answer this, as you’ve done pretty much every job one can do in the telecommunications sector.


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah. Boy, that’s a really good question. So I think the first and foremost thing to say during your career is, just to be — to work as hard as you possibly can at whatever it is that you’re doing. When I started off my career in the Honors Program — following my clerkship, I went to the Honors Program at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice in Washington. Some of the work I was doing early on in the telecom task force was, frankly, not all that interesting. And it’s sifting through hundreds of boxes. In those days, it was manual boxes, to try to find the one document that could make or break an issue in an antitrust case. And it wasn’t glamorous, but the fact that I was willing to do it, I think, impressed the people I was working for.


And the same thing when I went to subsequent jobs. I did a good job in them. Not necessarily with an eye to future advancement, just because I really cared about the job and I wanted to impress the people I was reporting to. And over time, what you’re going to find is, that has a very strong incremental, but I think over time, compound effect, so that when you’re in a position to have an opportunity, like becoming a Commissioner at the FCC, those people who you’ve worked for or who’ve come to know your work, will go to bat for you, sometimes without you even knowing it, and that will open doors of opportunity. And that’s certainly how, when becoming a Commissioner and certainly becoming a Chairman, was very helpful, as well. A lot of the people who I’d known over the past couple of years, several years, went to bat for me. And it was exceptionally helpful.


Giving the telecoms base, in particular, I highly recommend — look I know I’m biased because I’m in the space, but to me, TMT, tech, media, telecom, underlies virtually everything in our economy. Certainly going forward. And so it’s going to transform healthcare, and transportation, and education, and agriculture. So I would definitely recommend you getting into the field.


In terms of how to do so, get to know people who are doing things that you’re interested in, either on the legal side or on the business side. And just try to pick their brain as best you can. Get to know them, go to speeches they might give. Of course, in the virtual environment, it’s a little tougher. But just try to get to know them however you can. 


Ask them for a cup of coffee, real or virtual, and just build those relationships. And number one, you’ll learn something in the short run. Number two, you’ll demonstrate to that person that you’re interested. And number three, you’ll plant a bug in that person’s mind, “Oh, wow I remember Ajit was interested in telecom. There’s this job that’s opened up, or internship opportunity that’s available. I’ll recommend him or her for that position.” That’s certainly how we’ve come to hire certain people who’ve interned in our office. And that’s the kind of thing that will build itself over time.


Don’t get discouraged. Have a thick skin. And just be fearless and work your [butt] off. And over time, that will be rewarded.


Brad Larson:  Well, now that we’ve gotten advice for the law students, someone is asking, what advice would you have for your successors at the FCC?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Good one. I think number one, just be courageous. You know, when I got this job, and during the transition period before I got the job, I canvassed every single one of my living predecessors, going all the way back to President Kennedy’s first FCC Chairman from 1961 to 1963. He’s still alive at 96, I think it is, and just doing great things. And I asked all of them about their experience in the job, if they had any advice. And I also asked each of them, do you have any regrets having left the Chairmanship and with the wisdom that comes with retrospection. And almost to the person, they said, you know, I wish I would have done more. There’s some issue that I left unresolved, and I wish I would have tackled that one, or those issues. 


And that was one of the things I was determined not to do in this job, was to just color inside the borders and just let it be at that. If I had an agenda, I wanted to be able to execute the agenda, so that when I left, I would know I’d done everything that I could on those issues that I cared about. And that’s exactly what we’ve done. So whoever the next person, or people, might be, what I would say is, do the same. Figure out what it is you want to do and then have the courage to be able to see it through.


It’s not going to be easy. I mean, look, I know that obviously I’m probably not one of the better-known FCC Chairs, but that’s because I’ve, like I said, been willing and able to go to the plate and swing for the fences. The next person should feel the same. And even if you get blowback from those are politically not aligned with you, if it’s something you believe in, have the courage to do it. And if you believe it’s right, over time, you’ll be proven correct. That’s the advice I would give.


The other one I would give is more internal. Just really work well with the staff. This is an organization of 1,447 fantastic people. They’ve got a lot of things on their plate, and especially during the pandemic, it’s been a challenge for them to work in a virtual environment. They’ve got family issues just like the rest of us do. And so I would encourage whoever comes next not to just mail it in with the staff, but really spend time with them, getting to know them, understanding their problems and their opportunities, and encouraging them to be a part of the team. 


A chairman can easily sit back and delegate all of this. And just issue proclamations from up on high about what the FCC staff should do, but it takes a really determined manager, and somebody who cares about the agency, to put in the time. And I’m proud to say that I’ve done that. And that has enabled us to get results. Because they’re the ones doing a lot of the leg work and they’ve been able to put across the finish line, a lot of these big, big things that we can now take pride in.


Brad Larson:  Yeah. I think we’re coming up on our time limit here. So I think I’ve got at least one more question for you. Kind of the ultimate question is what’s the next step after the repeal of net neutrality? What do you think the next step is to ensure a fast, fair, and cheap internet?


Hon. Ajit Pai:  Yeah, look, I mean the market-based framework is the right one. I think that’s been proven correct in two decades prior to 2015. It’s being proven now over the last couple of years.


You know what I would love to do, though? Just have Congress put on a page a very simple net neutrality bill. No blocking of lawful content, no throttling of lawful content, no anticompetitive paid prioritization, every internet service provider has to have full transparency, in terms of network management practices and the like. Very simple bill, could fit on one page, and in a just world, that would pass 99-1 in the Senate. 


But look, I think frankly, what we’ve seen is the other side has a religious attachment to this issue. And they’re going to settle for nothing less than complete utility solid regulation of every aspect of the internet economy. And they don’t want legislation on this issue because I think they fear, rightly, that anything that falls short of that would be seen as a failure. So I just — to me at least, barring legislation, solving this issue once and for all so we can move on to things that actually matter to American consumers, I’d hope that the FCC would always embrace some sort of market-based vision for this issue. 


But it’s amazing how much oxygen this thing has consumed because when you travel around the country, and over the last four years, I’ve been to 49 states and the territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. And I’ve met people above the Arctic Circle who live in communities without roads. I’ve met people in Puerto Rico who just want internet access restored after Hurricane Maria has wiped out their neighborhood. I’ve met with 911 call centers in West Virginia, rural West Virginia, that need next generation 911 — IP based 911 systems to be able to do their jobs.


Do you know what none of them have ever mentioned to me? Net neutrality. But if you go on Twitter, and if you look on Facebook, and if you look online, that’s 99 percent of what people debate about at the FCC. It is a nonissue to the millions of Americans who just want faster, better, cheaper internet, or access in the first place. And so I would hope that a lot of the passion, and especially some of the vitriol that’s been presented on this issue, would be focused on something that actually matters to the American people, which is making America’s internet infrastructure ubiquitous, more competitive, faster, and cheaper for everybody. And if we do that, I think ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what net neutrality regulations are because everybody has access that is affordable and meets their needs.


Oh, and I would mention as well, one of the things I should have also mentioned earlier in terms of legacies, is promoting innovation. Encouraging a lot more companies to enter this space. And so in the last three and a half years, for example, we’ve encouraged competition from space, with companies like SpaceX and OneWeb, entering the marketplace with cast constellations in low-Earth orbit that would have provided a competitive alternative in urban areas, and provide access in rural areas where a fiber provider, or someone else on the ground, isn’t willing to build that infrastructure. So that’s the kind of thing we’re doing that I think is going to pay huge dividends in the time to come.


Brad Larson:  Thank you. We really appreciate you coming in to speak with us today. I think that’s probably a good place to cut it there, for all the people who have to go to class.


Hon. Ajit Pai:  I know. I’m so sorry about that again. But you know, if folks have questions, you can always email me directly. It’s [email protected], and I’m so, so sorry. I hate being late, if you ask my team. That’s the one thing I’m really persnickety about. So I apologize to all of you. But I’ll do my best to answer any questions you might have remaining. And thanks again to Columbia and The Federalist Society for giving me this opportunity. It’s been awesome.


Brad Larson;  Yeah, thank you. I really enjoyed it. I’m sure everyone else did, as well.




Conclusion:  On behalf of The Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project, thanks for tuning in to the Fourth Branch podcast. To catch every new episode when it’s released, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spreaker. For the latest from RTP, please visit our website at




This has been a FedSoc audio production.

Ajit Pai


Federal Communications Commission

Emerging Technology

Federalist Society’s Columbia Student Chapter

The Federalist Society and Regulatory Transparency Project take no position on particular legal or public policy matters. All expressions of opinion are those of the speaker(s). To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].

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