On November 30, 2020, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to step down from his position on January 20, 2020. Chairman Pai’s decision to resign his post will allow President-Elect Biden to pick his own Chairman. While Pai’s tenure was widely seen by those on the left as one of the most controversial, his legacy and policy achievements will soon be appreciated by the millions of rural Americans who, as a result of investment and deregulation, now have faster and more reliable access to the internet.
When Chairman Pai was named Chair of the FCC by President Trump in January 2017 America had a significant digital divide between urban communities with wider access to fast and reliable access, while those in rural communities struggled to connect to the internet. If they could, it was often slow and unreliable. Recent estimates from the FCC suggest that 97% of urban Americans had “access to high-speed fixed service,” but that number fell to 65% of rural Americans and 60% of Native Americans.
Throughout his tenure at the FCC, Chairman Pai continuously reiterated his desire to close the digital divide and bring “the benefits of the Internet age to all Americans,” not just those living in large metropolitan areas.
Unlike his predecessor Tom Wheeler, Chairman Pai entered office with the fundamental belief that “consumers benefit from competition, not preemptive regulation.” His faith in competition led him to issue the Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIFO) in January 2018 that reclassified Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from Title II providers to Title I under the Communications Act of 1934 — more commonly known as abolishing net neutrality rules. The consequence of this was that the government gave ISPs the incentive to innovate and invest infrastructure without fear of the imposition of onerous public utility-like regulations.
As the FCC noted, the decision back in 2015 to reclassify ISPs as Title II providers led to a 5.6% decline in investment that disproportionately harmed rural providers without access to “the resources or lawyers to navigate a thicket of complex rules.” As UStelecom, an organization representing broadband providers noted, the years following the reclassification saw a significant increase in private sector investment following years of decline. In 2018, for example, broadband providers invested $80 billion, up from $74.8 billion in 2015, the year net neutrality rules were imposed. Much of this investment was a result of deregulation that made it easier and less costly for ISPs to invest in rural communities.
Outside of encouraging private investment in rural communities, Chairman Pai also oversaw significant public investment through the Connect America Fund and other programs that would foster increased connectivity. In September 2020, the FCC reported it had, through the Connect America Fund, invested $1.488 billion to provide 700,000 homes in 45 states. Additionally, the FCC provided $4.91 billion to rural carriers to maintain high speed internet to 363,000 rural homes and businesses.
Chairman Pai’s policies have also been a significant boon for Americans living on Tribal lands. Back in 2017, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FCC estimated 34% of Native Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband. To correct for this, the FCC granted 154 Native American communities licenses to use 2.5 Ghz spectrum that would allow for better and faster internet connectivity. Prior to the granting of these licenses, Chairman Pai’s FCC increased financial support for carriers that operate on Tribal lands, with the result being an expansion of access to broadband in 37,000 locations on Tribal lands.
While Chairman Pai’s tenure as head of the FCC might have been seen by many on the left as controversial, it’s undeniable his policies have been a blessing for rural Americans who now have wider access to faster and more reliable broadband. Although the digital divide has yet to be closed, and more work needs to be done, Pai’s policies have made it easier for those in rural communities to reap the benefits of increased connectivity.
If the future chair of the FCC continues a policy of light touch regulation, there is a real opportunity to finally close the digital divide and ensure rural communities are brought into the digital age.