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August 16 2019

Ajit Pai talks FCC policies that make your life better

by Beverly Hallberg

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai joins the “She Thinks” podcast this week to dscuss the future of the Internet and bringing the benefits of the Internet age to all Americans. We talk about rolling back net neutrality, the introduction of 5G technology, and how the FCC is spearheading initiatives to expand broadband Internet access in rural America. He also shares his personal approach to social media usage and his best practices for handling unwanted robocalls.

Ajit Pai is the 34th Chairman of the FCC-- designated Chairman by President Trump in January 2017. Previously, he served as a Commissioner at the FCC, appointed by then-President Barack Obama. At the FCC, Chairman Pai has been a champion of policies that aim to promote innovation, investment, and public safety. But his top priority is bridging the digital divide, the gulf between those who have ready access to the Internet, and those who do not.

Beverly H.:
And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you're allowed to think for yourself. I'm your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today's episode the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is joining us to discuss the future of the internet. We're going to get into the rolling back of net neutrality and whether or not that killed the internet, as many claimed it would. The introduction of 5G technology and what we can expect in 2020, and how the FCC is spearheading initiatives to expand broadband access in rural America.

Beverly H.:
But before we dive into the conversation a little bit about Chairman Pai. He is the 34th chairman of the FCC designated by President Trump in January, 2017. Previously he served as commissioner at the FCC appointed by then president Barack Obama. And finally, at the FCC Chairman Pai has been a champion of policies that aim to promote innovation, investment, and public safety. His top priority being bridging the digital divide.

Beverly H.:
Chairman Pai, a real honor to have you on with us today. Thank you so much.

Ajit Pai:
The honor is mine. Thanks so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it and I'm grateful for the work that the Independent Women's Forum does.

Beverly H.:
Well, thank you so much. And I know we're going to dive into some of those policies that you have promoted, but I thought we would start off by just learning a little bit more about your background. Where did you grow up? And I'm curious, was it ever your dream to become the chairman of the FCC?

Ajit Pai:
Well I ensure you the answer to the second question is no, I had no idea what the FCC was when I was a kid. I grew up in a small town called Parsons, Kansas. And we moved there when I was about four and a half years old, and from then until the end of high school I was in this small town and it was a pretty unique experience. Grew up in the late '70s early '80s there and it was a terrific place and a terrific time to be a kid, and pretty safe, you left your doors unlocked. My parents worked at the county hospital. And through that we got to know all kinds of people around town and it was just a great experience. If you had told me back then, the shy, awkward, gangly Indian American kid, "Hey, someday the President of United States is going to tap you for this important job," I never would have believed it. But in my heart I would have wanted to believe it. And I think that's the thing that makes America so unique, is that truly anybody can achieve anything if given the opportunity.

Beverly H.:
And just to give more background on the FCC, tell us a little bit about what its main purpose is and what your philosophy is as the chairman of it.

Ajit Pai:
A great question. So the FCC was set up in 1934, 85 years ago, in order to regulate the communications marketplace. And over the years it's evolved. Way back then when it started it was primarily to regulate radio and telephones. That's now evolved to regulate satellite communications, wireless, and other new technologies. There are five commissioners, one of whom is designated at any given time by the president as the chairman. And that happens to be me over the last two and a half years.

Ajit Pai:
And we oversee an agency of about 1500 people. It has various bureaus and offices. As bureau is focused on things like wire line regulation or international issues, the offices tend to provide support such as the Office of the General Counsel providing legal support, the Office of Engineering Technology providing engineering expertise. And for the last two and a half years I've had the privilege as a chairman of setting the agenda for the commission. And it's been a pretty wild ride. We've been very active. But it's a tremendous privilege and I get to see the impact of our decisions every day when I travel around the country. And that's one of the things that's made this job very gratifying. It's not one of these agencies where you just push paper in a Washington office, and you just wonder if anyone sees the impact. It really does make a big difference, a positive difference, I think, in the lives of the American people.

Beverly H.:
And what has it been like to work in an area that is evolving so quickly? You mentioned what the origins were of the FCC when it started, but now we have technology moving so quickly, we have social media. What is it like to try to keep up with this fast pace in an ever-changing environment that we find ourselves in when it comes to technology?

Ajit Pai:
It's a real challenge. I'm an intellectually curious person by nature and it seems like every week, sometimes almost every day, there's some new technology or issue that I need to learn about. And so you read up as much as you can on it. I talked to our experts here at the agency and one of the great things about this particular job of being the chairman is that you have the ability to call up pretty much anybody in the corporate world, in the academic world, and ask them, "Hey, can you come in or can I visit you and can you explain how this stuff works?".

Ajit Pai:
Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX in town, Gwynne Shotwell, a super brilliant woman who is literally a rocket scientist aiming to send up hundreds of thousands of these satellites into the earth's orbit in order to beam internet access back down to the earth. And just to get an explanation from one of the country's best experts on this stuff about how it works is it's just incredible. So there's always a lot to do and a lot to learn and that's good for me because I'm never bored.

Beverly H.:
I'm sure you're not bored. You of course made a lot of waves about a year ago because you did roll back the Obama era net neutrality rules. People were claiming that you were going to destroy the internet, that you were killing the internet. Of course, ironically, we're here talking online today, so obviously the internet is not dead. But this went into effect a year ago this past June. The internet is not dead. What can you tell us about rolling back net neutrality and what that has meant?

Ajit Pai:
Yeah, it's sort of funny. When we made this decision back in December of 2017 and when this repeal went to effect in June of 2018 we kept track of some of these crazy predictions that some of these net neutrality's zealots were making. For example, this is the end of the internet as we know it, as CNN broadcast. We heard that the internet was going to load one word at a time as the Senate Democrats official accounts put it. We heard that you're going to have to pay five dollars per tweet and all this other kind of nonsense. And the point I made then is the point I make now, which is that the internet is going to be just fine. It's going to be better than ever without the heavy hand of government regulation. And that's exactly what we've seen over the last year.

Ajit Pai:
Speeds from December of 2017 when we made our decision until December, 2018 we're up 40% year over year. We're seeing billions of dollars more invested in internet infrastructure to help close the digital divide. We're seeing millions more Americans get online for the first time. And so, my point is let's leave the hot air from politicians and Washington special interests behind and focus on what really matters, which is getting people on the right side of the digital divide, connecting them, allowing innovation and investment to flourish. And we'll take the heat that we took over the last year, because, at the end of the day, doing the right thing is always the right thing to do even when, especially when, it's hard.

Beverly H.:
And that issue, I want to let our listeners know, that one of the IWF senior policy analysts, Patrice Lee Onwuka, has done a lot on the issue of net neutrality as well as some of the other issues we're going to discuss today so they can go to IWF's website to see more on that. But one more thing on net neutrality. I really appreciated your sense of humor about a lot of the tweets that you got. You did this viral video responding to mean tweets. You seem to have fun in your job. How did you decide to even do that video where you were going to make fun of the fact that people were so up in arms over this, and how did you make that decision to move forward with that kind of video?

Ajit Pai:
I think part of it is just my personality. I tend to be a very optimistic, outgoing person. And then part of it is when I learned that I was going to get this job during the presidential transition, I had a pretty fundamental choice to make. Was I going to be more of an inward facing bureaucrat, not trying to explain our positions to the public in and accessible way, or was I going to try to transform the way the FCC communicates with the outside world? And I chose the latter. And I think, even though some of those videos, especially the mean tweets video, has been criticized, at the end of the day, one of the things that I think makes our decision more understandable is the fact that I take the issue seriously, but I don't take myself seriously.

Ajit Pai:
And to be able to reflect back on some of these critics, the ridiculous and in some cases racist or even violent suggestions they've made to me, I think just hold a mirror up to them, and it points to, not just the importance of making fact-based decisions here at the FCC, but to the American people having a more civilized discourse. And that's a way I've tried to conduct myself in this job. And so long as I have the position at least, you're going to continue to see me on Twitter and on YouTube and all these other platforms. I tried to make the case in a light, sometimes self-deprecating way.

Beverly H.:
And, out of curiosity, do you ever log off yourself? Are there times where you tell yourself, "Okay, I need to take a break from social media." Or do you have any type of safeguards that you set up for your family using social media? Because I think so many parents out there are trying to figure out how to navigate this world.

Ajit Pai:
Boy, that's a great question, and it's one of the things I think about a lot because my kids right now are just seven and five, but even now, they know how to unlock my wife's phone, for example, and they can pull up an app or something like that. And so, we try to limit as much as we can anyway of the electronic content that they consume both on phones and on TV. But in a couple of years, once they get old enough, I'm sure they're going to be asking for their own phones and the like.

Ajit Pai:
For myself, I find it very healthy to log off every now and then. In fact, just last week some buddies and I went to the back country of Wyoming in Yellowstone National Park. And there was no signal, there were no devices, there was nothing but the outdoors. And it was amazing how much it cleared my head. And it reminded me what the real world is like. Sometimes when you're on these devices you're just convinced that Vitriol and Twitter is the way everyone thinks, or the latest video on YouTube is all that matters.

Ajit Pai:
But when you're out there and you see the stars and you're going to sleep at night without having to worry about what is on that screen, it does have a calming effect. And that's one of the things I do worry about, even though our goal here at the FCC is to get everyone connected. We want them to be connected in a healthy way. And that's one of the things that I have been thinking about a lot and talking about a lot with some experts is, is this changing the way we think about ourselves, we think about our neighbors, think about our country? And it's not an easy conversation, especially for those of us who are parents.

Beverly H.:
Yeah, I can even say, personally, running a small business where all my employees telework, we couldn't do what we do without technology. And I work in media, so everything is related to technology. But I agree with you, those times where you can just take a break and interact one-on-one with somebody and not through a screen is really helpful.

Beverly H.:
But I know that even part of what you're doing and some of the impacts that you're making, you're doing a lot when it comes to 5G technology, I know that that will allow greater numbers of devices to connect and the speed is going to be faster. But tell us a little bit about what you're doing with the 5F FAST Plan and what this is going to mean for individuals.

Ajit Pai:
Yeah, 5G is the next generation of wireless connectivity, and most wireless consumers know what 4G LTE is. Well, 5G is going to be even better. It's going to be 100 times faster, if not more than that. The response time when you ping the network to get on a website will be much faster, and we'll see a lot more connected devices, as you're pointing out. Everything from your phone to your refrigerator to your car could be connected, and that requires the FCC to do a lot of work. And that's why last year at the White House I announced the FCC would be starting the 5G FAST Pan, the plan to facilitate America's superiority in 5G technology.

Ajit Pai:
And this plan has three basic parts, which folks can see if they want in more detail at fcc.gov/5g. Getting more spectrum into the commercial marketplace, getting more wireless infrastructure, deployed small cells as opposed to those big cell towers. And then, third, making it easier to deploy optical fiber in the ground, which will be critical to carrying a lot of this internet traffic back into the network. And thus far we made progress on all three of those fronts. And my goal is, ultimately, for Americans to have more competitive options than ever before. And also from a macro perspective to make sure that America leads the world in the development and deployment of 5G technologies. There are other countries have seen the success we've had in 4G and they want to claim that mantle of leadership for themselves, particularly China. And so we want to make sure that America's on the cutting edge, and hopefully if the FCC's initiatives continue to make progress, we'll be there.

Beverly H.:
And when you think about being on the cutting edge and competing with other countries and what that means, even from a national security issue, where would you say the importance is for us to continue to be a leader in this area?

Ajit Pai:
It's absolutely vital. And it's not just a question of the parochial, "Hey, we want to be number one." 5G is going to lead to the transformation of entire industries. It's going to be deployed in conjunction with a lot of other technologies that we've been studying, for example, artificial intelligence and machine learning and quantum computing and blockchain and all of these other new technologies. And so when you think about, for example, healthcare, one can imagine that in the future medical school students would be trained using virtual reality modules that will rely on 5G connectivity. Or patients in rural areas who can't have specialists see them in person might rely on wireless connection using 5G to be able to get cutting edge care. Or a business woman who needs to be able to access quickly a global customer base, would be able to do that with 5G if she can't find a fiber connection. And so these are the kinds of things that are going to be incredibly important on a micro level for women and men across the country, and on a macro level for the country itself to be much more competitive in a global economy.

Beverly H.:
And I know on this aspect something that you've been a big proponent of and something that you've been pushing for is expanding rural broadband, making sure that people who live in rural areas are connected just like everyone else. What have you been doing, what are the initiatives there to expand in rural areas?

Ajit Pai:
Yeah. This has been our number one priority from my first day as chairman on January 24th of 2017. I told our staff, "Look, we have a lot of things on our plate, but nothing is more important than closing the digital divide." And, increasingly, this is an urban rural divide. If you live in a big city, the chances are you're connected. But there are too many parts of this country, including my own hometown to some extent, where folks just don't have those options. And we want to make sure that everyone who wants internet access, high-quality access, is able to get it.

Ajit Pai:
And to deliver on that goal, we've pulled out all the stops. For example, we have updated our regulations, modernized them to make the business case for deploying this internet infrastructure as strong as it possibly can be. Instead of government micromanaging how companies spend their capital, how they operate their networks, we've taken a more market based approach. And as a result of that, millions more customers are getting online for the first time. The second thing we've done is to reform the way that we distribute our funding. We have something called a Universal Service Fund. Every customer with a phone typically pays something called a universal service fee into a fund, and the FCC then distributes that money to companies for the purposes of building out broadband in rural areas.

Ajit Pai:
Well, when I came into office, a lot of this money was being misspent or it wasn't being targeted to parts of the country that were unserved. We've reformed that and now, for example, we are distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to parts of the country that don't have service at all. And the third thing we're trying to do is encourage much more innovation. I mentioned earlier, Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, well, hers is one of many companies that we're trying to encourage to enter this marketplace. There are satellite companies, there are wireless companies and others looking at provide access in innovative ways and they need the FCC's approval in order to do that. And so we have been green-lighting a lot of these companies.

Ajit Pai:
From my perspective, I don't really care what technology a company uses. I want them to have a really strong incentive to compete and to enter the marketplace. And hopefully we're able to close that divide substantially during my time in office.

Beverly H.:
And final question for you, I figured this was appropriate since it's campaign season, and during campaign season we all love getting those robocalls, those campaign phone calls, those campaign texts. Curious what your efforts have been on that front since I think people want to know what are their rights and what can they do?

Ajit Pai:
Boy, this is an issue that drives me crazy, not just as a regulator, but as a consumer. I get these robocalls all the time. It's amazing how many people apparently think I speak Chinese, or how many Marriott vacations I've won. And this is one of the reasons why this is our top consumer protection priority. And over the last two and a half years we've been doing a lot to attack this problem. We recently made clear that phone companies can block some of these unwanted robocalls by default using advanced analytics. I've demanded that the phone companies implement a new caller ID authentication standards, essentially a digital fingerprint for every phone call by the end of this year. And if a phone call doesn't have that fingerprint, the phone company shouldn't transmit the call.

Ajit Pai:
We've also gone after these robocallers with the largest fines in the FCC's 85 year history. And I know the consumers are really frustrated because these calls seem to be coming all the time, and I get that, and we're doing everything we can to attack that problem. But one of the issues we've encountered is that pretty much, nowadays, anybody with an internet connection anywhere in the world and the desire to bombard American consumers can essentially do that. And so we need to make sure that we take tough regulatory action in order to attack this problem. And hopefully consumers will get some relief in the time to come.

Beverly H.:
Now when you've gotten a robocall, have you ever pulled out the FCC chairman card and let them know who you were? Because I think that could be effective.

Ajit Pai:
I have, yeah. It's quite amusing. So, typically, it drives my wife crazy when I do this, but typically I will answer just to waste their time and to see what exactly it is they want. And a couple of times I have said, "Just so you know, you happen to be calling the chairman of the agency that is responsible for cracking down on people like you." And, typically, what happens is just very quick, click, and they hang up.

Ajit Pai:
But I'm often curious to see what they must be thinking when it happens in that moment. But, yeah, it happens to me too, just like it happens to other consumers. And that's part of the reason why I'm doing so much to attack this problem. I hear about it from my own mom, from my mother-in-law. If for no other reason, my seat of the Thanksgiving and Christmas Day table might be in jeopardy if we don't take aggressive action on this front. So, folks who are listening, just be aware that I'm on the case for both professional and personal reasons.

Beverly H.:
Well we so appreciate you joining us today. I just want to personally say that I've appreciated just the approach and the demeanor you've taken to this job. It's been fun to watch you and to listen to you. And, again, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Ajit Pai:
Well, thanks so much to you. And I meant what I said in the beginning. IWF has been such a great advocate for women being able to speak in the public square based on their own independent voices. And that's something that's so important in our democracy. And I can't even say enough how much I appreciate your advocacy generally and in particular your work here at the FCC to help support some of the initiatives we've got, which will empower women in the future.

Beverly H.:
And, again, remember you can find out more information on many of the issues discussed today on IWF's website. So do check it out there. Last, I want to let you know about a podcast that you should be listening to every Thursday morning. Problematic Women is co-hosted by Kelsey Bolar and Lauren Evans to sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative leaning or problematic women. That is women whose views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so-called feminist left. So you can hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics by searching for Problematic Women. That's Problematic Women, wherever you get your podcasts.

Beverly H.:
Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks do leave us a rating or a review on iTunes, it does help. And we'd love it if you shared this episode. So let your friends know where they can find more She Thinks episodes. From all of us here at Independent Women's Forum, thanks for listening.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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