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FCC activity has sped up during the pandemic, Chairman says

As COVID-19 spread and the early stages of the pandemic began to set in, it was initially anticipated that the work at the Federal Communications Commission would slow down. But that hasn't proven to be true.

"To the contrary, it has actually sped up," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said today in a keynote discussion with Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). That keynote helped to kick off NAB Digital Express, an online event that has taken the place of the cancelled NAB Show that was set to happen last month in Las Vegas. "It's definitely been a change of pace."

Pai said the FCC's 1,400-plus employees have been able to move the ball forward even as they began to work from home en masse on March 12. But he added that the pandemic has likewise "generated a huge amount of effort."

Some of that effort is clearly visible, including the FCC's provision of temporary authority for spectrum to mobile carriers, regulatory relief for broadcasters and new telehealth initiatives. Pai said the "centerpiece" of those pandemic activities has been his "Keeping Americans Connected Pledge," which called on cable operators and other ISPs to waive late fees, refrain from turning off broadband service to customers who can't pay, open up Wi-Fi hotspots and relax data caps and usage-based billing policies.

"Administering that pledge and making sure that we're in touch with the industry and consumer groups about it has taken a lot of time," Pai said.

The pledge, introduced in mid-March, was recently extended to June 30.

"We recognize, of course, that we're still in the midst of the pandemic and it's unclear when we're going to emerge from that situation and reopen the economy," Pai said. Given all the uncertainty consumers have in their lives about employment, healthcare and education, "broadband should not be one of them," he said.

NAB's Smith noted that the pandemic has "crippled" local advertising for broadcasters and asked if the FCC would be able to provide any help on the regulatory side or otherwise.

Pai said the FCC has been "very aggressive" in trying to figure out if there are regulatory dispensations or other moves, such as changing fee structures or altering fee payments, that could help to ensure that "broadcasters are able to literally keep the lights on."

"We're very open to doing that," Pai said.

Pai was also pressed a bit on his plans post-FCC and if he intends to stay at the Commission through the rest of the year, with Gordon suggesting he take a run at the White House.

"As for what comes next, I still haven't really thought about that," Pai responded, adding he's been "amused" by the speculation. "We're still in the middle of the sprint so to speak, so I haven't thought about what happens after you cross the finish line."

But he did joke about some far-fetched ideas. "That's not to say, of course, if they were looking for a Judge Judy replacement or if [Kansas City Chief quarterback] Patrick Mahomes were to go down and they need a 47 year-old slow quarterback with a bad arm, I wouldn't pitch in. But in the meantime, what I can say is that I'm really happy to do the job I'm doing."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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