Ajit Pai Charts the Future

FCC’s new chairman says others can parse politics, but he’s out to deliver for consumers

Why This Matters

FCC chairman Ajit Pai says his objective is not to score political points, but community-service wins for the American consumer.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has pledged to roll back regulations he believes are wasteful or will cause unnecessary hardship, including rules that keep broadcasters from competing more aggressively in a world of media choice. Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner since 2012 who was named chairman by President Donald Trump in January, has been accused of being on a mission to dismantle Democratic predecessor Tom Wheeler’s legacy. Pai, though, says that his goal is to deliver value for the American people and that community-centric broadcasters are central to his consumer-service mission.

The 44-year-old Pai has already generated some heat in the broadband world by rolling back regulations governing privacy and the Internet. In broadcasting, he has already restored the so-called “UHF discount,” which gave UHF stations an ad­vantage in tallying reach, and is eyeing other media-ownership rules, including the 39% national ownership cap.

As he prepares to head to Las Vegas for the annual NAB Show, where deregulation and incentive auction issues will be top of mind, he spoke with B&C Washington bu­reau chief John Eggerton in an exclusive interview about his agenda for governing the industry. Here’s an edited transcript of their talk.

How important is TV broadcasting in a world of broadband and cable and satellite?

I continue to believe that TV broadcasting, and broadcasting generally, remains a critical part of the media landscape. Millions of Americans around the country rely on it to get their news, entertainment, sports and other in­formation that is important to them, and I think broad­casting is going to continue to be a very important value proposition for consumers going forward. It is highly local, it is tailored to the needs of communities and, even as we enter a much more digital landscape, with ATSC 3.0 I think broadcasters are going to be able to innovate yet still preserve that value proposition going forward.

You mentioned ATSC 3.0 [the advanced transmission standard that broadcasters want to start testing as soon as the FCC givens them the go-ahead]. What is the current status of that proceeding?

We adopted the notice of proposed rulemaking [to allow such testing] on Feb. 23. The comments have been coming in ever since, and the FCC’s terrific staff, including folks in our office, are checking the record to see what the public has said about our proposals. We are hopeful we will be able to take final action by the end of the year, but we don’t have a specific time frame other than that.

Is that something you will need to coordinate with the post-incentive auction repack?

I don’t see a direct connection with the repack. Obviously, the same folks who would be interested in exploring ATSC 3.0 might well be involved in the repack [almost 1,000 TV stations will have to move], and so we would want to make sure from their perspective that there aren’t any issues that should be flagged for our attention, but our goal is to allow broadcasters who are willing and able to experiment with this next-generation TV standard to be able to do that and de­liver value for consumers on mobile devices and other devices that might enable broadcasters to thrive in a new way.

One of your criticisms of the FCC in the past was that it did not recognize competition among broad­casters, over-the-top providers, cable operators and satellite providers when it analyzed market competitiveness. How did that affect broadcasters’ ability to get the deregulatory help they needed?

One of my core principles at the FCC is that since the agency is considering regulations covering an entire marketplace, it has to have an accurate view of what that marketplace is. To me, that means making a full and fair assessment of all sources of competition in the marketplace. And so, with respect to media, I think it is unquestionable that the Internet has had a transformative impact. The way we consume news and information now is dramatically different from the way it was consumed a generation or two ago.

I think it is important for the FCC’s regulations with respect to media to generally match the times. Going forward, I think you will see more of an effort from the FCC to take a holistic view of the marketplace and set our regulatory framework accordingly.

In your next report on competition, do you plan to actually start declaring markets competitive if the data suggests that?

I can tell you that we are going to make an effort to gather all the relevant facts about the state of competition in a particular market­place, and we’ll make the appropriate judgment based on those facts. If the facts suggest that the marketplace is com­petitive, I won’t have any hesitation recommending to my fellow commissioners that we find it so.

Will that be something that you vote on at the commis­sion level, rather than release from the bureau?

We haven’t yet made any determinations with respect to that, but obviously you can forecast given my previous statements about the need for full commission input on mat­ters of this type. I would be favorably inclined to make sure that all of us on the commission level had the opportunity to weigh in.