Ajit Pai on Monday announced he would step down as the chairman of the FCC on January 20, the same day that President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to become the next president of the US.
The action creates a clear path for the incoming administration to begin work on two big items that are likely on Biden's agenda: universal broadband and net neutrality.
That's noteworthy considering Pai's four-year tenure as chief of the FCC was marked with a variety of contentious actions on both fronts.
Pai – who joined the FCC under President Obama and was nominated to the chairman position by President Trump – will probably be best remembered for his aggressive rejection of the net neutrality guidelines established by his predecessor, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Pai's move away from those net neutrality guidelines was widely cheered by the telecom industry but loudly lamented by most Democrats and consumer-rights advocates. Pai himself faced personal threats due to the action.
But during his tenure Pai also oversaw a number of other high-profile actions, including a ban on Chinese suppliers like Huawei, several major 5G spectrum auctions and a variety of programs aimed at constructing telecom networks in rural areas.
"I am proud of how productive this commission has been, from commencing five spectrum auctions and two rural broadband reverse auctions in four years, to opening 1,245 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for unlicensed use, to adopting more than 25 orders through our Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, to aggressively protecting our communications networks from national security threats at home and abroad, to designating 988 as the three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and much, much more," Pai said in a statement. "I'm also proud of the reforms we have instituted to make the agency more accountable to the American people. In particular, for the first time ever, we've made public drafts of the proposals and orders slated for a vote three weeks before the agency's monthly meetings, making this the most transparent FCC in history."
Added Pai, the son of Indian immigrants: "To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America."
Looking past Pai
It's unclear who might take over leadership of the FCC, the US government agency in charge of the telecommunications industry.
Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior Democrat on the commission, has been eyed as one of the leading candidates to succeed Pai as chair of the FCC.
Another possible replacement would be former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who is one of the members of Biden's FCC transition team. That team also includes former officials from the FCC and NTIA and Congressional aides.
It's also unclear exactly who might represent Republicans on the five-member commission. The commission typically comprises three representatives from the administration's party (Democrats in Biden's case) and two representatives from the other party. Although Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr still has several years left on his term, President Trump essentially fired the other Republican commissioner, Mike O'Rielly, because he spoke out against Trump's desire to prevent social media platforms like Twitter from blocking his many lies.
Trump's new nominee to the FCC, Nathan Simington, is a Commerce Department official who played a "minor role" in drafting the petition instructing the FCC to address Trump's desire to target social media companies by using Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It's unclear whether the Senate will act on Trump's nomination of Simington, but it's likely that Biden's FCC won't move forward with the Section 230 proceeding.
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