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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who killed net neutrality, will step down after Trump term ends

Pai, appointed by Donald Trump in 2017, will leave on the day of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

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Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, will finish up in January.

Mark Licea/CNET

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, will step down Jan. 20, the agency said in a release Monday. He was appointed by President Donald Trump, who took office in 2017, and will leave on the day Trump's successor, Joe Biden, is inaugurated.

"It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission, including as chairman of the FCC over the past four years," Pai said in the release. "I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for twice confirming me. To be the first Asian American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.

Net neutrality legacy

Pai will likely be best remembered for his contentious deregulation of Obama-era net neutrality rules. In 2017, the Republican-led agency adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which repealed rules passed by a Democratic-controlled FCC in 2015. The repeal took effect in June 2018, even after the Senate voted in a bipartisan manner to nullify the agency's vote to dismantle the regulation, which much of the public supports. 

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet must be treated equally. It requires internet service providers to prohibit slowing or blocking access to websites, and it prohibits companies that control internet access from favoring their own services and content over a competitor's content or services. It also prohibits broadband companies from offering "fast lanes" to online companies who want their services and content to be delivered faster than that of a competitor. 

Pai and the two other Republicans on the FCC, Brendan Carr and Michael O'Rielly, claimed the FCC's rules stifled broadband companies' investment in network upgrades, harming sector innovation and job growth. Specifically, they argued that the reclassification of broadband as a utility-like service could give the FCC the power to regulate rates, which they claimed chilled investment from the private sector in broadband. 

In the year since the repeal took effect, Pai has claimed that investment in broadband increased. But earnings reports, independent research and statements from broadband company CEOs show no clear evidence that the repeal had any effect on investment in the broadband sector. 

More recently Pai's FCC has come under fire for supporting Trump's attempt to use the FCC to punish social media giants who the president claims are censoring conservative voices online. The companies have denied those claims. 

In May, Trump issued an executive order directing the FCC to establish regulations to clarify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides a shield to online publishers from liability for content generated by users. 

Democrats and watchdog groups such as Public Knowledge say that the FCC doesn't have the authority to impose these regulations. But under Pai's Republican leadership, the FCC agreed to write regulations for Section 230 that would penalize companies for censoring content. The agency's top lawyer explained in a blog post why he thinks the FCC has the legal authority to reinterpret the law.

Finding common ground

Pai, the son of Indian immigrants, grew up in rural Kansas. He attended Harvard University and, in 1997, earned a law degree from the University of Chicago. He's had a long career in government, including positions at the FCC, the Justice Department and the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he worked under the leadership of then-committee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions. Sessions was Trump's first attorney general

Pai also spent time in the private sector representing the nation's largest phone company, Verizon.

While serving as an FCC commissioner under Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, Pai made his mark as a staunch opponent to the 2015 net neutrality regulations. He accused Wheeler of a "secret plan to regulate the internet" that "opens the door to billions of dollars in new taxes" on broadband services.

Although he is best known for dismantling those rules when he took the helm as chairman, Pai maintained throughout his tenure that his highest priority was closing the digital divide. 

Most of those efforts have centered on providing rural America with access to broadband. The agency has pushed for new programs and funds to help improve investment in network infrastructure in hard to reach parts of the country. This has included the Phase 2 Connect America Fund, which awarded $1.5 billion to subsidize infrastructure in rural parts of the country. The agency also started the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Pai has also pushed for the use of reverse auctions to allocate subsidies to broadband providers in these areas to efficiently distribute government funds. 

The FCC claims these efforts have resulted in a 46% decrease since 2016 in the number of Americans without high-speed internet access. Still, problems remain. 

The FCC has not fixed issues it has long had with the data it collects about where broadband and wireless service exists and where it does not. 

The FCC has made progress in other areas as well, including combatting annoying robocalls. Robocalls have been a growing problem in the US. The number of calls have also surged amid the coronavirus pandemic, as illegal callers have adapted scams to take advantage of Americans. In addition to going after illegal robocallers with hefty fines, the FCC earlier this year finalized rules for phone companies implementing the Shaken/Stir protocol mandated by Congress in the Traced Act to help track down illegal robocallers. 

While often a polarizing figure, Pai was also able to unite his Republican and Democratic colleagues on the FCC on issues such as freeing up wireless spectrum for 5G and unlicensed use. This resulted in the FCC going to toe-to-toe with other federal agencies including the Pentagon and departments of Commerce and Transportation. 

The FCC under Pai has also gotten tough on national security issues, taking a hard line against Chinese equipment manufacturers, such as Huawei. National security experts have long warned that equipment from Chinese firms, which have strong ties to the communist Chinese government, could be a security threat. And on a bipartisan basis, the FCC has voted to ban carriers receiving federal subsidies from deploying gear from Chinese makers. 

New leadership

The FCC's net neutrality repeal and its efforts to regulate social media companies will likely be overturned as the Biden administration takes control of the FCC. 

As is always the case following an election in which the opposing political party takes control of the White House, the makeup of agencies such as the FCC also changes. This means that the five-member agency will now be controlled 3-2 by Democrats. 

With this shift in leadership, it's almost guaranteed that the net neutrality repeal will be reversed and the controversial attempt to clarify Section 230 rules will be dismissed.

There are already rumblings about who will head the agency. Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior Democrat currently serving on the commission, is the top contender for FCC chair.  She has twice gone through the Senate confirmation process with no major issues. 

She has been a strong proponent of net neutrality and has been a major detractor of Trump's efforts to police social media companies. She has also been pushing for reforms to the FCC's Universal Service Fund programs and other programs to expand broadband access to low-income students and close the "homework gap." 

Another possible candidate for the top spot at the FCC is Mignon Clyburn. She previously served on the FCC from 2009 to 20018 as both a commissioner and interim chair of the agency. Clyburn is the daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, who is a close ally of Biden. Rep. Clyburn's endorsement of Biden is considered a major reason why Biden won the Democratic primary. 

But it's unclear whether Mignon Clyburn is interested in returning to the FCC. Since stepping down from the FCC, she has moved on to other positions in the private sector. She currently serves on the boards of Lionsgate and RingCentral. If appointed as FCC chairwoman, she would have to give up those seats.