By Amir Nasr
February 3, 2016 at 6:08 pm ET
At the Federal Communications Commission, it’s not easy being in the minority. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai would be the first to say it. Countless items go through the agency on 3-2 votes, leaving the two designated Republican commissioners disappointed.
Just last week, Pai hit back at the agency’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report as proof the agency has failed to deploy broadband “in a reasonable and timely fashion.” He does not hold back on his criticism of how current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler runs the place. It’s way, way too partisan, he says.
Yet he is still amiable, even as he describes his experience serving in the oft-ignored FCC minority.
He has a welcoming smile and a jumbo-sized mug with the Reese’s Peanut Butter logo on it. He is eager to discuss some of his favorite burgeoning technologies: virtual reality and 3-D printing. He particularly enjoys pontificating on how new technologies such as these could move civilization forward and gradually change everyday life.
It’s his enthusiasm for technology that led Pai to his position at the peak of telecom policy. He describes himself as a technophile whose love for playing with gadgets grows with each new device.
“I still remember the excitement when my parents got me the Atari 2600 and thinking, ‘Wow, the world is never going to get better than this,’” Pai recounted in an interview. “I feel like I say that every single day when I hear about some new technology or service.”
The allure of cutting-edge technologies pulled Pai into the field, resulting in a career in telecom that the 43-year-old likens to the film “Forrest Gump.” Like the film’s title character, he’s been where all the action is. He has worked in the Department of Justice, as chief counsel in two subcommittees of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as associate general counsel for Verizon Communications, and as a staffer at the FCC.
“It was a sort of accidental transition,” Pai said of his gradual move to telecom. Out of law school, Pai clerked for the Honorable Martin L.C. Feldman of United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Feldman suggested that Pai, a young lawyer with a deep interest in antitrust law, should apply to an honors program in the Justice Department.
When the DOJ accepted Pai into the program, he requested placement in the Telecommunications Task Force. His fascination with the budding field had everything to do with that request.
“I knew the Telecom Act had just passed, and so I applied and got in, and to my surprise I found that I really loved just the nuts and bolts of telecom policy,” Pai recalled of the massive 1996 rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act.
Pai is in his fourth and final year of his term as an FCC commissioner, and his personal experiences continue to drive his career forward. This is illustrated by the project he labels as priority number one, two and three: strengthening broadband deployment.
As a native of Parsons, Kansas, Pai finds the issue particularly important, especially for rural America. Parsons is a small town three hours away from Kansas City. As Pai saw close friends move from his hometown to seek opportunity, he saw a cycle developing that he believes poor rural broadband deployment catalyzes.
“A lot of the younger people are migrating to bigger cities or to one of the coasts and part of the reason, I would argue, is they don’t perceive that there’s as much economic opportunity in those rural areas. And part of the reason for that is they don’t think that broadband is as widely deployed,” Pai said.
That’s why he has been “really passionate about making sure that broadband is ubiquitous.”
Through trips to rural regions ranging from Alaska to Mississippi, Pai sees broadband deployment as a vital step forward for making life better for everyone in the U.S.
“Part of the reason why I have traveled within the United States as I have is I don’t want to fall into that trap of thinking that everybody in the United States has the digital opportunity that I have,” Pai said. “It’s jarring because driving in, I can rest assured I am going to have an LTE connection wherever I go. … And some of these places they don’t even have roads, so they’re dealing with some significant infrastructure problems.”
Pai remains optimistic the FCC can move forward and strengthen broadband deployment soon, but he also reflected on some of his biggest frustrations in rulemaking processes under Wheeler.
It’s no secret how he feels. Pai has publically denounced the practices of the current chairman for purposefully excluding the minority voices on the commission pushing through regulatory items with the Democrats on a 3-2 majority.
He says times have changed since he served under Democrats Julius Genachowski and Mignon Clyburn, who both led the agency in recent years. “It’s changed remarkably,” Pai said.
Under the previous two chairmen, all the commissioners heard about items further in advance, and they were “much more willing to enter into negotiations about any given item, big or small.”
“Now, typically what happens is that the majority will huddle amongst themselves and figure out what any given item should look like. The deal will be cut,” Pai said. He added that for items up for votes at open meetings, they will be circulated to the commissioners’ offices roughly three weeks before, the minimum amount of time.
Pai said his suggested changes to an item aren’t accepted. “More often than not, our suggestions are completely — we don’t get responses at all,” he said. “It’s sort of like applying to all these colleges and never hearing back one way or the other. Secondly what will happen is we’re simply told, ‘No, we’re not going to do this.’”
It’s annoying when you’re ignored, but what irks Pai more, he says, is that his office does its work diligently and quickly in order to give Wheeler’s office time to mull over his requests. It’s not uncommon for FCC commissioners do their review and suggestions “at the 11th hour,” he added, resulting in everyone scrambling to handle proposed changes to hundred-paged items.
“We try to avoid that by at least one week or sometimes two weeks or more in advance, giving a forecast of where we are and what we’d like to change. So that makes it especially frustrating when proposed changes just sit there on the shelf and never get any consideration,” Pai said.
He said this became apparent to him a few years ago when the FCC was deliberating an item that aimed to connect libraries and schools to broadband. Pai said he was particularly disheartened when his list of roughly 13 changes were returned to him with a red “No” marked next to each suggestion.
“It highlighted to me the fact that this is a very different administration, and they’re more than happy to go with the narrowest of majorities if it means that the policy is going to be pure from their perspective,” Pai said.
He says under Genachowski and Clyburn, the commission unanimously voted 89 percent of the time at commission meetings, compared to the current 50 percent.
“I feel like I’m the control group here, since I’ve served under three different chairs and as a staffer I served under two more, and I haven’t changed,” Pai said with a laugh. “The only thing that’s changed is the approach to decision making at the agency.”
With his term up in June, it’s unclear where Pai will be a year from now. Based on his testimony, the past two years would certainly be an aggravating end for someone with such vibrant enthusiasm for his field of work. Having said that, there’s only reason to believe he will remain in the thick of tech’s hottest policy topics.
Regardless of his future employment, Pai gave his two cents about the importance of cooperation within the FCC.
“The commission is much stronger when it speaks with a unified voice,” he said. “It gets a lot more congressional support, it’s more likely to be held up in the courts and ultimately accepted by the American people.”
Amir Nasr previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering tech.