Join us as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai discusses how the FCC is addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. What measures has the FCC taken to date, and what is planned in the future?
Ajit Pai, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
Operator: Welcome to The Federalist Society's Practice Group Podcast. The following podcast, hosted by The Federalist Society's Practice Groups, was recorded on April 3rd, 2020, during a live teleforum conference call held exclusively for Federalist Society members.
Dean Reuter: Welcome to The Federalist Society’s practice group teleforum conference call as today we discuss the Federal Communications Commission with Commissioner Ajit Pai. My name is Dean Reuter. I’m Vice President and General Counsel of The Federalist Society.
As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the expert on today’s call.
This is a Capital Conversations version of The Federalist Society’s Practice Group teleforum conference call where we’re trying to bring you updates from key administration officials. We’re very pleased to welcome you all here today. And actually, Ajit Pai is known well to all of you, so I’m not going to pain you with an introduction. Let me just turn the floor over to him. We’ll get opening remarks from him and then look to you for questions. With that, Chairman Pai.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Well, thank you so much, Dean, and thanks to The Federalist Society for hosting this teleforum. I also appreciate those who are on the call for taking time out of a Friday afternoon to chat. The FCC has been pretty busy over the past couple of weeks, not least of course because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the American population. And I thought I’d spend a few minutes before we turn it over to questions from Dean or from listeners to just sketch out briefly what the FCC is doing to help respond to this unprecedented situation.
Several weeks ago, once it became clear that Americans by the millions across the country would be transitioning to a very different environment—working from home, teaching their kids at home, and doing more services from home that they typically would do outside of the home—it became apparent that we needed to step up to make sure that broadband connectivity would be there. Of course, everybody knows that broadband was important even before the pandemic. It’s intertwined in virtually everything we do in our daily lives. But especially with people staying at home and practicing social distancing, we recognized that it was important for the broadband connectivity to be there.
So we immediately got on the phone all the major trade associations representing internet service providers and telephone providers across the country, as well as many, many of these companies individually. And I told them “It’s really important for you to take what I’m calling the ‘Keep Americans Connected’ pledge.” For those of you who are listening, if you want more detail, you can go to FCC.gov/keepamericansconnected for more detail.
But in a nutshell, that pledge has three basic parts: number one, that no provider will cut off service to a consumer who is unable to pay his or her bills due to the economic or other disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic; secondly, that those providers will wave any late fees or similar charges for similar reasons due to the pandemic’s impact; and third, that these providers would open up any Wi-Fi hotspots they might have to any Americans who might need them.
And I’ve got to say I’ve been very impressed by the response to the pledge. Many of them signed up immediately. And over the past couple of weeks we have now tallied over 650 companies representing hundreds of millions, the vast majority of American broadband consumers, who have taken the pledge and who’ve committed to doing those three things for the next 60 days.
Going forward, one of the things that was also important to us was to challenge these companies to go even further than the pledge. And we urged them to think creatively about how they could address the needs of the consumers. And many of them have done that.
For example, some of them have made new low-income service offerings that weren’t in place before. Many of them have proactively increased either the amount of data that’s available or the speeds that are available at no charge. Many of them have waved or lifted data caps and the like. And several others have gone even further, making sure that network installs proceed at pace so the people who signed up for service are going to be able to get it.
So I really commend the broadband and telephone companies that have taken the pledge and have gone beyond it to help keep folks connected. It's an incredibly important way to make sure that American consumers who have so much on their minds right now—of course, the health aspects of the pandemic and economic disruptions and the like—that they won’t have to worry as much about broadband connectivity.
Now, I want to stress that this is something that I’m personally sensitive to. I, like many of you probably, have been working at home for several weeks now. And it has been a challenge for me to juggle doing my job here in the home office in a single room all day along with some of the other responsibilities that I have – trying to teach the kids, go and get groceries and the like. So we recognize, all of us at the FCC who are teleworking now, that our work is important, that it helps make sure that Americans are able to preserve some semblance of functionality in their daily lives.
Going forward, we’ve got a lot -- still a lot to do. And we’ve been issuing waivers and granting special temporary authority and taking other actions to make it easier for providers to continue providing these communication services to consumers across the board. And I’d be happy to discuss those in more detail if folks would like. But at a very high level, that is what the FCC has been doing over the past couple of weeks. And with that, I would leave it to Dean, our auguste moderator, to pose any questions that he or others might have.
Dean Reuter: Chairman Pai, you’re tenure has been distinguished by your stance on net neutrality, which I very much appreciate. I wonder if you can give us an update and your views on how net neutrality is working in this era, the coronavirus era, or whatever we want to call it, and maybe draw some comparisons between how it’s working here in the United States and elsewhere where they have different regimes and thoughts about net neutrality.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Great question. So over the last three years, my overarching philosophy has been that we need to create a regulatory framework that maximizes the incentives of private companies to invest in and to innovate in broadband network infrastructure. The reason’s pretty simple. Broadband networks are very hard and expensive to build. And the more difficult the regulatory framework is for doing those tasks the less likely it is we are going to have broadband networks that are sufficient to withstand increased usage from consumers.
And I think the proof is in the pudding. Over the last three years, thanks in part to the regulatory decisions we’ve made, the broadband networks are stronger than ever. Net neutrality, of course, was one of the more salient of those decisions. When we made that decision in December 2017, there were a lot of projections: “This is the end of the internet as we know it. You’re going to have to pay $5 per tweet. Certain services are going to be unavailable, period,” and the like.
And none of those projections have come to pass. In fact, speeds in the United States as we speak are up over 80 percent on average for fixed broadband since we made that decision. We set the record for fiber deployment in the United States in 2018 and 2019. The internet is better than ever before with venture capital for startups setting a record in 2018. And it was on track to do that in 2019. And moreover, the internet is free and open.
That was before the pandemic. I just got off a call -- two calls yesterday with the heads of the major trade associations representing their service providers and some of those providers themselves. And they represented -- and there are maps that you can find on their websites for NCTA, CTIA, and U.S. telecom that detail the increased usage over the pandemic. Usage in the United States, depending on the part of the country and the time of the day, is up 20 to 35 percent over what it was before the pandemic.
Nonetheless, despite this massive increase in usage, the networks have been holding up extremely well. And why? The reason is because these companies had the regulatory certainty and the incentive they needed in order to invest in broadband infrastructure. So they were able to pour money into the networks and essentially create a network architecture that could handle the peak of traffic or expected traffic and scale over time to be flexible to meet consumer needs. That is great. That’s allowed people to do things like Zoom calls and watch YouTube and upload and download lesson plans and the like.
The comparison to Europe is quite interesting, though. As you might have seen and if you go on Google, which of course still exists in the United States, you can find all these articles talking about how the European commission had to go to companies like Netflix and YouTube and ask them to proactively throttle, slowdown, the services that are provided to European consumers.
And I would humbly submit that part of the reason is that Europe has embraced the utility style regulations, including net neutrality, in a very strict way. And as a result, infrastructure investment in Europe and investment in networks has been a fraction of what it has been in the United States. So while we, of course, haven’t seen that here in the United States and I would think the regulatory framework is part of the reason why, so I continue to believe that we made the right decision.
None of the providers we have talked to has expressed a concern about that increased usage impacting network performance so far. And we’ll continue to monitor the situation of course. But I do think that the decision we made a few years ago has stood us in good stead during this pandemic.
Dean Reuter: This might be a geeky question, but I’m wondering if you can talk for a little bit about C band and L band and what the future there looks like, after, if you don’t mind, giving just a layman’s explanation of what’s happening there.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Sure. I don’t consider them geeky questions or geeky people. These are my fellow travelers. So I think in our world we’re all cool.
When it comes to C band, we adopted an order a couple months ago, I guess it was, establishing a framework for essentially reallocating the spectrum that is currently held by some satellite operators from 3.7 to 4.0 gigahertz and repurposing it for terrestrial 5G use. And we set up -- it was a very complicated framework and set of deadlines.
But essentially, we’re going to be taking the steps necessary to hold an auction of the C band, of 280 megahertz of the C band, starting on December 8th of this year. And notwithstanding the pandemic, we anticipate at this time that that auction is going to go as scheduled. It is a very complicated auction -- or complicated spectrum band to deal with, probably the most complicated I’ve ever dealt with in my time at the FCC.
And the reason is that we decided that for the FCC to be able to hold this public auction we had to figure out a way to align the satellite operator incumbent’s interest with our own. So what we did was to use the framework that the FCC has embraced for almost 30 years now called the Emerging Technologies framework, along with the plenary authority to modify licenses under Section 316 of the Communications Act and offer the satellite companies not just the relocations costs, which were estimated to be about $3- to $5 billion, but in addition to that offer them accelerated relocation payments, in other word, try to incentivize them to free up that spectrum quicker, that lower 380, 300 megahertz of spectrum quicker so that we could hold that auction.
And essentially that $9.7 billion would then align the satellite operators’ interests with those of the wireless carriers that want quicker access to that spectrum. So we’re confident that the satellite operators will come to the table. We’ve already gotten public expressions from companies like Telesat and SES that they are interested in the framework, that they support the FCC’s order. And the election data for satellite companies to opt into this will be May 29th. We’re hopeful that we’ll get a very favorable response then.
In the meantime, there are other spectrum issues on tap. You mentioned the L band as well. And that’s one where it’s been pending for a long time. We continue to work with some of our federal partners, in particular the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, and others on it. So here, too, as with some of our other decisions we’ve been making, we want to try to figure out not what the political angles are but more what are the technical details of this plane.
That’s the situation we’re in now, just trying to work through some of those issues. I don’t have an update on that front yet. But we continue to get feedback from public sector and private sector stakeholders.
Dean Reuter: Let’s check in with the first member of our audience, see what’s on their mind. Go ahead, caller.
Cleta Mitchell: Hi, this is Cleta Mitchell, Mr. Chairman and Dean. Nice to talk to you. I wanted to first of all congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, on that wonderful editorial in the Wall Street Journal this morning. It will help us understand all the things that you’ve been doing and how it has manifested itself now.
And the second thing I wanted to ask or just mention is a lot of the Keep Americans Connected initiative and that list of telecom companies and associations who are participating is just fabulous. And I was actually going to send you just some bullet points of a small, little Texas telephone cooperative and what they’ve been doing just in their area. I think that we need to highlight some of these specific stories about what they’re doing because it’s very heartwarming and gratifying to see.
And I think if there’s a way that we can thank these companies and all. I think they’re doing wonderful things. It’s a good, positive group of stories, and I appreciate your leadership on reaching out to all of them and keeping us all connected. This is our lifeline, so thanks for all you’re doing.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Thank you so much, Cleta. I really appreciate your raising that point. Obviously, most Americans know the names of a few of these broadband providers, the Comcast, AT&Ts of the world and the like. But there are so many of the companies that have taken the pledge, as I mentioned now over 650 of them. And I think 99 percent of Americans have probably never heard of most of them.
But to me, those are the foot soldiers for the broadband revolution in parts of the country that traditionally have been on the wrong side of the digital divide. And I’ve had a chance before the pandemic to visit a lot of them. I still remember a visit I did last summer to Mandan, North Dakota where BEK communications, a very small company that I’m sure many listeners haven’t heard of, that very day was connecting Colin Quill with gigabit fiber.
And he had never had an internet connection to his house, but today, he was getting gigabit fiber. And I asked him, “What are you going to do with all this bandwidth?” And he thought about for a second because he’d never had that kind of problem to worry about before. But then he said, “You know what? Now, my wife and I don’t have to drive 20 minutes to Bismarck -- sorry, to Fargo so our kids can use the neighborhood Wi-Fi at the McDonald’s to upload their homework.” And that’s just one example of how a small company can really make a big difference in the life of one family, of one community.
And those stories are multiplying now in the wake of the pandemic. And so we really are trying to highlight as much of that as we can. If you have the misfortune of following me on Twitter, @ajitpaiFCC, I’ve been trying to find examples of that to show that, look, broadband providers, they’re involved in the pandemic response, too. Their workers are going out in the field at risk to themselves and their families, and they’re trying to make sure that Americans have the connections they need.
So shoot me an email. It’s email@example.com. We’d love to get more details on that company in Texas and any other companies out there that are going above and beyond. I really do want to stress that, when we say we’re all in it together, we’re all in it together. And I think broadband providers by and large believe that, too.
Cleta Mitchell: Well, I think you’ll really like this story. They are doing discounts to any home connecting because a lot of people are connecting because their kids are required to do distance learning. So they’re giving discounts to new customers who have students in their home and just a whole list of things. It’s pretty remarkable.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: It’s just amazing. Cleta, please do send that along, and I’d love to take a look.
Cleta Mitchell: Thank you.
Dean Reuter: Let’s check in with our next caller.
Tim Harker: This is Tim Harker in Potomac. I have a distinctly non-geek question. I still own a flip phone, so I can assure you how non-geek this question will be. I’m pretty interested in the coronavirus China -- or China link. And I wonder if you could discuss how the corona epidemic and China’s covering it up has impacted the FCC’s campaign involving 5G on the one hand and also how the use of Twitter by China to blame the United States for the coronavirus has impacted the FCC.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Well, happy to. And before I do that, though, I have to commend you on your use of the flip phone. I’ve been over the past couple of weeks re-watching Breaking Bad. And every time Walter White pulls out that flip phone it’s a good reminder of, hey, not that long ago this was the technology du jour. And I actually miss my flip phone in quite a few ways. So kudos to you.
I’ve been pretty outspoken about some of my criticisms of Chinese Communist Party, especially when it comes to 5G. And there’s no question that the party, as well as some of the companies that are subject to Chinese jurisdiction, have made a very concerted effort to not just dominate the Chinese marketplace but extend that domination to other markets. And before the pandemic fully took hold, part of my responsibility here was to make sure that we secured our own supply chain.
And the FCC has done that with unanimous votes barring federal funds from going to companies like Huawei and ZTE. But I was also on the road quite a bit, in fact, just over the last year, everywhere from, let’s see, Bahrain to India to Malaysia to Singapore to Japan. I’ve spoken with the Brazilians and the Germans and others to try to persuade them to come around to our view that security of 5G networks is important, that it can’t be an afterthought, and that, to the extent that Chinese law requires any company subject to its jurisdiction to reply with requests from intelligence services, that Chinese equipment just couldn’t be trusted. It was just too much of a risk.
And I think some of the concerns I’ve had and expressed publicly have been magnified over the past couple of months. And this is not strictly within the FCC bailiwick obviously. But as you can see from my Twitter feed, if you look up my Twitter handle and you don’t say, I’ve had a long-running thread about how the Chinese Communist Party has looked to manipulate perception, public perception of the situation, not just in China but around the world. And it’s a serious public health issue.
And I don’t claim to have expertise on all the nuances of the coronavirus’ development and spread. But what I do know is that openness and transparency across borders is exceptionally important in helping all of us understand better what the threat of the virus is. And the Chinese Communist Party I don’t think by any reasonable measure has been open and transparent as it should be. So rest assured I share some of the concerns that you’ve addressed, and we’re doing our part at the FCC at least to stay focused on it.
Dean Reuter: If you’ll bear a slight interjection here, Chairman Pai, relatedly, I’m curious about your thoughts about how much the national security conversation has been absorbed, not just around the world but within our country here. I find it curious when independent agencies are sometimes ending up on the other side of the -- in enforcement actions. And independent agencies are a bit of a pet peeve with some Federalist Society members.
Is there any mechanism, formal or informal, for independent agencies to vet not just their regulations but their enforcement actions when it comes to technology companies? It seems to me that if you’re enforcing against Boeing or Lockheed Martin or something like that the national security implications are pretty clear. But it’s only recently, it seems to me, that when you’re enforcing against big technology companies there might be national security implications. Is there any process for making sure the Executive Branch is speaking with one voice in those circumstances?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: A very good question. There is, generally, very close cooperation at least between the FCC and the relevant agencies within the administration on some of these issues. Just to give you one example, last year, the FCC, under my leadership, denied the application of China Mobile to enter the United States market. Traditionally under Section 214 of the Communications Act, any company looking to enter the U.S. market has to apply to the FCC for, essentially, authorization. And typically what the FCC does is either grant or deny based on its own factual record.
But we recognize that there are national security dimensions to this question, so we consulted with all of the national security and intelligence community agencies. And they provided us, for the first time, a recommendation that we deny the application. So we relied on that judgement in going forward.
Similarly, whenever we develop some of our supply chain rulemakings -- I know you were asking more about the enforcement side, but on the rulemaking side, too, we always collaborate closely on some of the supply chain issues. So for example, in initially designating Huawei and ZTE as problematic companies, we relied on the judgement of some of our sister agencies. So from our perspective at least, although we are an independent agency, when it comes to national security, I think its exceptionally important, as you hinted at, for the administration to speak with one voice and not to provide dissimilar regulations or dissimilar pronouncements about how it’s thinking about an issue.
So we try to minimize, to the extent we can anyway, some of that risk through interagency cooperation. I will note, by the way, that for those of you out there who are worried about the status of independent agencies, a nice anecdote. One of the first people I heard from after I got confirmed as the commissioner in May of 2012 was a good friend of mine here in Washington who is a diehard member of The Federalist Society. And he called me to congratulate me for, and I quote, “being my favorite member of an unconstitutional independent agency.” And that’s probably one of the best complements I’ve gotten over my eight or so years on the commission.
Dean Reuter: It looks like we’ve got three callers in the queue now with questions. Go ahead, caller.
Roger Hanshaw: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. My name is Roger Hanshaw from Charleston, West Virginia. If this recent work from home exercise that the country’s now engaged in has taught us anything it’s that we need better connectivity and better internet access globally but certainly here as we try to continue doing business in the United States. Can you tell me from a non-technical perspective if your agency has been a part of the conversations with the administration and Congress about the ongoing efforts to craft relief legislation and if the expansion or bolstering of connectivity and expansion of reliable services is a part of that conversation?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Happy to, very good question. We’ve been very involved. In fact, several weeks ago I went to Congress -- my team went to Congress and gave them certain asks that we thought should be included in what ended up becoming the CARES Act. And one of the asks that was accommodated by both Houses of Congress was a $200 million proposal I had for funding of telehealth solutions. One of the things that the pandemic has made clear is that there’s an increased burden on the brick-and-mortar healthcare facilities.
So to the extent that some of these healthcare providers could do telehealth, some of the patients who did not have COVID-19 related issues could be treated remotely so they didn’t have to come into a hospital and risk exposure. Healthcare practitioners wouldn’t have to risk exposure from new people coming in, etc. And last Friday, a week ago, the President signed the CARES Act, giving the FCC authorization to do telehealth programs and $200 million. On Monday, I outlined my plan to execute quickly on that authority. On Tuesday, that plan was adopted by the FCC, by all five commissioners. And then yesterday we released that plan, which is publicly available.
And now I’m going to be doing outreach to healthcare providers around the country to let them know that that authorization is there. We’re continuing to work with Congress on some other issues. One of the big challenges, as I’ve seen firsthand, is educating kids at home, doing remote learning. One of the issues is that Section 254 H2 of the Act, of the Communications Act, explicitly limits the FCC’s ability to provide subsidies for schools and libraries to, quote, “service delivered to,” quote, “classrooms.”
Obviously, something like a Wi-Fi hotspot is not a service, and home is not a classroom. So one of the things I pitched to Congress on is setting up authorizations similar to what we did for telehealth just last week for a remote learning initiative. Enable us to set up a program quickly that would get some of this connectivity to students wherever they happen to be, typically at home, of course. So that’s the kind of thing we’re continuing to do.
In the meantime, though, the FCC has to walk and chew gum at the same time. So we’re walking in terms of pandemic response, but we’re also chewing gum in terms of the bread-and-butter issues that we typically handle. And to me, there’s no bigger one than getting broadband out there to all parts of the country. The most significant issue that I’ll highlight because it would effect you in West Virginia and many people across the country is the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
This is a $20 billion fund that we just voted on a few months ago, and we’re going to be holding that auction some time later this summer. But it would essentially direct $20 billion for connectivity over the next decade at a very high speed and high quality. And one of the things that we’ve been fighting about, including with some elected officials from West Virginia, is they say that, “No, we should delay that auction. We should wait until every single map of broadband availability in the country is perfect.”
And to me, if there’s a part of the country we already know is unserved, we want to fund broadband providers to build infrastructure in those areas now. We don’t want to wait. And I think the pandemic has only underscored the importance of not waiting around.
Same thing just earlier this week, we announced a $9 billion 5G fund. This is all using existing funding, by the way, so we’re not raising taxes so to speak in order to fund it. But this 5G fund is going to provide 5G services to parts of the country that otherwise would be left behind, since providers tend to focus on the bigger cities and the like that have more return on the investment. So whether it’s fixed broadband at home or 5G, we want to make sure that every part of the country has connectivity in order to do telehealth, remote learning, telework, whatever it is you want to do. That connectivity is critical, and I think the pandemic shows why we need to move forward quickly.
Dean Reuter: Very good. Two questions pending now in our audience. Let’s go to another caller.
Cole Deport (sp): Hi, Commissioner. This is Cole Deport calling. I had a couple questions. One was how does the breakdown work between the FCC and the FTC on blocking unwanted phone calls under the new legislation? That’s the first one because it doesn’t seem to be advertised very well, and I know that the carriers can charge for it. And secondly, just a quick update on what you think the pending litigation is right now that the FCC is involved in.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: So on the first one, your question is more timely than you know. I don’t know if you saw it, but just in the last half hour we announced breaking news that there’s an unprecedented action that we’ve taken in collaboration with the FTC to go after some of these scam robocalls, in particular relying in part on some of the telephone companies that created something called a Traceback Group. The Traceback Group helps track down where some of these suspect robocalls are coming from.
They’re typically coming from abroad and what gateway providers, so to speak, what small company in the United States is taking those calls from abroad and then throwing them onto the consumer, onto the phone networks where they end up bombarding consumers. So thanks in part to this public-private cooperation between the FCC, the FTC and the Traceback Group, we just announced within the last hour that we are demanding that three gateway providers in the United States that have been watching a lot of these coronavirus related robocalls must stop doing that within the next 48 hours or risk being cut off themselves from the U.S. phone network. And that’s one of the things we have ample authority to do under the Communications Act.
And moreover, from a policy perspective, I don’t know about you, but robocalls drive me absolutely crazy. I get them every day. And the last thing we want, especially in the midst of a pandemic, is for fraudsters to start promoting things like fake testing kits or bogus cures that end up wasting time at best or scamming people out of their hard-earned money at worst. So that kind of FCC/FTC collaboration is now the new norm when it comes to robocall enforcement.
Legally speaking, the FTC has jurisdiction over a variety of consumer protection issues. They administer the Do Not Call list, for example. They can take enforcement action against particular companies. We have more authority on the rulemaking side, and we’ve done that by authorizing companies -- phone companies to block robocalls by default. We just mandated on this past Monday that they implement a new caller ID authentication technology called SHAKEN/STIR.
Essentially, this would create a digital fingerprint for every single phone call. And if a phone call didn’t have that fingerprint, a phone company wouldn’t pass the call along to the consumer. So that’s the kind of thing we’ve been trying to do in a more collaborative effort.
With the respect to the litigation, there’s a lot of litigation out there. I guess the most significant one that’s pending right now would be the remand of the -- the D.C. Circuits remand of certain net neutrality issues. Overall, they upheld the broad decisions that we made in terms of reclassification of the internet, access services as an information service. But they remanded on three discrete issues, and we sought comment on that.
So that deadline is going to be -- we just extended the deadline for replies a little bit. But that’s going to be something we have to deal with. And in the meantime, I would anticipate, although we haven’t seen it yet, litigation over the C band that Dean and I just discussed. There has been noise from some of the small satellite operators that don’t provide service in the United States but nonetheless feel that they should be afford some millions of dollars from the FCC as part of this effort.
And they’ve announced that they will litigate. They haven’t filed yet. But if they did file, we would want to make sure we batted that back because any injunction could delay the auction. And we certainly don’t want that to happen. So I guess those are the two things I would flag for consideration.
Dean Reuter: Two questions pending, so let’s head in a new direction with a new caller.
Caller 4: Hi, with the pandemic, it seems like a lot of restrictions have been eased as far as data caps and access has been expanded for the internet. And it seems as though the internet has done just fine. I was just wondering if you foresee any longstanding changes in how the consumer market acts? Like are these data caps going to come back after the pandemic?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Yeah. That’s a really good question. We certainly hope that to the maximum extent possible the increased usage that has been accommodated by the providers who provided these dispensations will continue because we think that they’re -- I do think that there are going to be changes in consumer behavior that are permanent and not just a result of the pandemic. So obviously that’s up to the particular provider to figure out how their network architecture is performing, what their consumers are demanding and the like. But I do hope that a lot of the rule changes that we’ve made, a lot of the business offerings and business management decisions that they’ve made will become the new normal. So we’ll see how that goes, but thus far at least it’s been pretty successful.
And in the meantime, we do think that some of the changes that we’ve proposed going forward on the rulemaking side are going to make a big difference for consumers. And the biggest one that I don’t think we’ve had the chance to discuss yet was the proposal we just announced on Wednesday. This was a plan I announced that would make over 1,200 megahertz in the 6 gigahertz band available for Wi-Fi.
And I don’t know if you’re at home with multiple devices being used by multiple peopled, but the congestion in Wi-Fi’s become a serious issue. So I proposed a massive expansion, a fivefold expansion in the amount of airwaves available for Wi-Fi. This has been described by one Wi-Fi innovator as the biggest event in Wi-Fi if not wireless in a generation.
The Wall Street Journal editorial with Cleta kindly mentioned this morning endorsed this plan, as have many others. And this would be a huge benefit to consumers, no matter where they live in the time to come. And I’m hopeful that the FCC will approve of it at our April 23rd meeting.
Dean Reuter: Let’s check in with another caller.
Caller 5: Mr. Chairman, thank you so much for taking our questions. I didn’t catch the first part of your comments on the L band. But it would just seem that, in the midst of this crisis, getting more spectrum available is clearly at a premium. I’m just wondering are you currently planning to move forward on that. And what are the key milestones from here?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: So no update on that front. I know there’s been a great deal of interest in it, but I can’t really say anything other than we’re continuing to work with our federal partners. And prior to the pandemic disrupting our normal work habits, I was continuing to take meetings with stakeholders on the issue. But yeah, unfortunately, I can’t give you any hint as to what we might do and when we might do it. And I know that’s unsatisfactory given the pendency of this issue over several years. But that’s the unfortunate best I can do.
Dean Reuter: Go right ahead, caller.
Adrian Keeble: Thank you for taking the call. I’m Adrian Keeble. I’m located in Virginia. If you look at what happened with 3G and 4G to the economy, clearly, 5G will be -- should be a large contributor to not only jobs but also GDP and just wealth in the stock market. Clearly, a lot of that’s going to be on the back of private capital. But in times like these, the government can help. And I was wondering what you think Congress or the administration might be able to do to help you jumpstart 5G or catalyze it and have it happen more quickly. And do you think that they are teed up to do that currently?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: That’s a good -- I don’t know home much time we have, but I’ve got a lot of ideas. One would be for Congress to make it easier for us to repurpose airwaves for commercial use. Right now, because of the division of authority we have, the FCC has jurisdiction, as you know, over spectrum for the commercial marketplace while the NTIAA, a subset of the Commerce Department, has jurisdiction over federal held spectrum.
And getting those two entities to collaborate and to get more spectrum available for 5G has not always been easy, to say the least, over the last year. And we’re quickly reaching the point where there is no more green field spectrum. Every spectrum band has some sort of incumbent. And if it’s a federal agency that’s an incumbent, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to persuade that incumbent that either relinquishing the spectrum or sharing it is the right way to go. Whereas, other countries don’t necessarily have these obstacles. So anything Congress or the administration can do to ease that transition from federal to commercial spectrum would be very helpful.
A second thing that would be great would be for all of the agencies to support our efforts in promoting more virtualized networks. 5G networks are going to be very different from 4G and predecessor technologies in that its going to be more software driven as opposed to hardware driven. And one of the reasons why Huawei has had such success, I think, in the 5G market is it’s a very consolidated marketplace and they get subsidies from the Chinese government.
So if you’re in Ericsson or Nokia, which are the two main alternatives to Huawei, it’s very difficult for them to compete at scale around the world. But if you virtualize a lot of this network architecture, then you all of a sudden put the keys to security and cost effectiveness into the hands of the network operators. You don’t have to rely on Huawei as much.
So one of the great regrets I have about the quick transition we had to telework was that the FCC had planned a forum on March 26th focusing on this very topic, virtualized radio access network architecture. And a lot of the companies doing this interesting work are based here in the United States, companies like Altia Star and Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and others, home-grown American companies that could provide a cost-effective alternative and provide more secure networks. We wanted to highlight those efforts.
And as you might have seen on April 1st, the White House had slated a 5G summit to follow up on our virtualized radio access network forum. And that, too, had to be postponed. So supporting our efforts there would be really helpful, I think, in showing that, not just on the spectrum side, but also on the infrastructure side we’re acting with one voice.
The other piece I’ll mention briefly is the International Finance Development Corporation. The IFDC has funding to support investments abroad. And one of the things I’ve discussed with Adam Bowler, the CEO of the IFDC, is for us to collaborate so that, if there’s a particular 5G infrastructure supplier that is not a Chinese supplier, to the extent they’re bidding on a contract, for example, in Bahrain or Brazil or wherever it is, the IFDC could step in with funding to say, “Okay. Why don’t you consider -- we’ll add to the capital of this company so that they’re better able to build a network and the like.” And that’s the kind of thing -- it could be really helpful in persuading some of these countries to use more trusted alternatives.
So those are three of things that pop up in my mind, but there are many, many others. Oh, actually, sorry. The final one I should mention is that we’ve been seeing a lot of state and local regulation of wireless infrastructure deployments. And we’re quickly reaching the point where, if you want to build a 5G network at scale, you can’t guess.
You don’t have the time or the capital to guess what is the FCC going to say about it, what is a state public utility commission going to say, what is the city, municipal authority going to say? So I would like for there to be more consistent regulation across the board. It shouldn’t matter where you’re deploying infrastructure. The rules should be as similar as possible.
And while preemption, I know, is not something that the state and local governments like to hear, nonetheless the internet, I think, is pretty well agreed upon as an interstate service inherently. So it follows from that that we can’t have these multiple layers of regulatory review much longer. So that’s another area where I would love to see congressional action.
Dean Reuter: We’ve got just one question pending.
Caller 7: You raise an issue which just came to my mind involving national security. The current situation with the crisis, the virus crisis, as pointed out by a lack of adequate domestic supply of a whole bunch of things, using the analogy -- I recall about 15 years ago there was a move afoot after 9/11 to set aside band space for first responders. And then I sort of lost track of that. A friend of mine who founded Nextel was leading that charge. And I haven’t seen him in years. And I wonder what’s happened to that, and is that something that’s currently being looked at in light of the corona crisis?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Yeah. That’s a great question, sir. So actually the First Net is the name of that entity, the First Responder Network Authority. That was created under legislation that was passed back in 2012.
The FCC’s role in that has now been discharged. We were supposed to submit technical recommendations to the Department of Commerce. We had to grant a license to the First Net entity, which we did back in 2013, I believe. And then First Net itself had to award a contract to a private carrier to help build that network. And they did that back in 2014 or 2015, I believe. They gave that contract to AT&T. So now AT&T and First Net are working together to build that network using 700-megahertz spectrum across the country.
And it’s been a while since I got an update on how that build out is going. As far as I know, anyway, it’s still proceeding at pace. That’s a really good point, and that’s an issue where we have been involved in a few ways. For example, along the border with Mexico some of the 700-megahertz spectrum is used on the Mexican side for television broadcasting still.
So there can be interference across the border. Occasionally, we have issues that we have to deal with interfering with 700-megahertz public safety communications and the like. But generally speaking anyway, the FCC doesn’t have as much of a role in First Net now in 2020.
Dean Reuter: Chairman Pai, you’ve mentioned a couple of times you’ve talked about different interactions with other agencies and with Congress. I wonder if you want to take a moment to describe just more broadly your relationship or the FCC’s relationship with Congress and with the administration.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Good question. It’s a very close collaborative relationship with each of those entities. When it comes to the administration, especially on some of these spectrum issues, we’ve had to work very closely with the White House and other departments and the like to make sure that we are able to achieve our mission of advancing American leadership in 5G. And I’m proud to say that thus far at least the White House has backed us up 100 percent.
The President himself has said that it’s a major priority for him, for America to lead the world in the development and deployment of 5G technologies. And we’ve had a good working relationship with many other agencies as well. There have been some difficulties to be sure. But overall I think we are pretty much aligned on that priority.
When it comes to working with Congress, too, we try to keep them in the loop on everything we’re doing. And no matter what the headlines might say or what you see in some hostile tweets, behind the scenes, at least for the most part, the relationships have been very cooperative. We try to let them know, for example, when it comes to the rural broadband initiative that I discussed -- we read them in as best we can to make sure they understand this is what it means for your constituents.
So for the gentleman who was calling from West Virginia, for instance, we set down with the West Virginia delegation and said, “Okay. Based on our projections, our mathematical models and the like, we project that 239,000 people in West Virginia will be eligible to get highspeed broadband as a result of our Rural Digital Opportunity Fund just through phase one alone because those people are considered to be unserved by any broadband whatsoever.” And that’s something that helps them understand -- putting away the acronyms and the CFR citations and the like, that’s something concrete they can understand and gives them buy in to what the FCC’s proposing to do.
So I think while some of my predecessors might have had a more -- a view of the agency as more distinct from Congress, Congress is a necessary evil that we’ve had to deal with, we’ve tried to keep the doors of communication open just to make sure that senators and representatives understand what we’re doing and support what we’re doing. But it hasn’t always been easy, to be clear, especially on issues like net neutrality.
It’s just the political catnip can be too appealing to some. So folks will want to take their pot shots. I try to be an optimistic person and look for those who are willing to work with me in good faith. And by and large, they’ve done that.
Dean Reuter: Very good. So let’s turn back to our callers.
Caller 7: Hey, Chairman Pai. A quick question, you mentioned the potential lawsuits on the C band’s auction from the SSAs. And I’m just wondering how you think about Intelsat. Intelsat is obviously a big player. They’re on the brink of bankruptcy now. They were before but now clearly seem to be. How do you view the risk of Intelsat either holding out and not cooperating and therefore the good actors also getting nothing and everything falling apart or proactively suing? How do you think about Intelsat related to this process?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Well, what I will say is that I do believe we’ve extended to every one of the companies whose work is essential for the transition of C band spectrum to the terrestrial 5G side of things a very fair offer when it comes to accelerated relocation payments, in addition to relocation payments. And I do hope that as the election date draws near, all of those companies will take a careful look at the FCC’s order, understand some of the tradeoffs we had to make, and see that the offer we’ve got on the table is a very fair one. And ultimately, it’s much better for everybody.
But every company’s going to have to make that decision for itself over the next, what is it, two months and change. So we’ll see how things materialize. But I’m very confident that the order we’ve got is not just solid in terms of its legal foundation but also as a policy matter in aligning the interests of everybody around what I think should be our shared goal of advancing leadership in 5G.
Caller 7: But would a bankruptcy of Intelsat change that view in the interim? And is that trading at ten cents on the dollar?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: That’s a disclose of our internal discussion on the question, so I can’t really opine on how, if at all, that might effect our thinking or how things might proceed.
Dean Reuter: Let’s check in with another caller. We’ve got two questions pending. Go ahead, caller.
Caller 8: Actually, the prior caller asked virtually the same question I was going to ask. So thank you for the floor and thank you for the time, Chairman Pai. What kind of coffee do you drink because your energy level is unbelievable? It’s impressive.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Well, thank you. One of the upsides of being home is that I’ve got an endless amount of coffee ready to be brewed just in the next room. So right now, although we are typically a Pete’s household, we’ve transitioned. I used to live in New Orleans, so we’ve got a whole stack of Café du Monde coffee with chicory. And that gets me through the day. So I’m on cup number three at the moment and still going strong. Yeah. Check back with me around 9:00 p.m. and I’ll probably crash in a heap.
Dean Reuter: So let’s go to a new caller and hope maybe we can get an at home delivery of beignets.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Yeah. That would be fantastic.
Dean Reuter: Go ahead, caller.
Caller 9: Yes, hello, Chairman Pai.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Hey.
Caller 9: Thank you for talking to me by the phone. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a 17-year-old who really likes the law. And I’m just curious. Has the FCC seen any kind of increase in litigation against it for regulatory actions as a result of the coronavirus? And more generally, what kind of coronavirus related telecommunication disputes has it been called in to resolve since the outbreak?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Good questions. So to the first, not really. We’ve seen actually no increase in any litigation related to the pandemic, indeed, to the extent that we’ve gotten questions from companies that are regulate-es or licensees. They’ve asked for dispensations that have helped them, for example, getting more emergency spectrum relief so they can offer more wireless service in New York City and the like. So they’ve been generally pretty happy about what we’ve done. Yeah.
So the biggest one would be robocalls. We saw an uptick in coronavirus related robocalls. And that’s one of the things that I was mentioning earlier. Our collaboration with the FTC has enabled us to track down particular gateway providers that were enabling some of these foreign launched robocalls from getting into our domestic phone networks. And we were able to take relatively quick action to target that. So that’s probably the biggest one.
We’ve gotten a lot of questions about telehealth and telemedicine. That telehealth program I described earlier, the COVID-19 telehealth program, was meant to address that concern that a lot of people had. So generally speaking, we’ve been pretty nimble whenever we get a request from consumer groups or companies and the like responding to that. But thanks for the question and hope you’re staying safe out there.
Dean Reuter: Well, Chairman, this is Dean. We’ve got two questions pending. You -- we’re in range, I think, of breaking the record for number of questions on a teleforum call.
Caller 9: Sorry. I have one more follow up question for you. There have been some debate for people we had talked to in Washington about the ability of the FCC to operate just functionally to be able to get things done. It sounds like you’re operating. I don’t know how you could characterize it, but if you could tell us how you’re operating, how quickly you’re able to get things done? And then, as specifically related to some of these really important 5G spectrum things, C band and L band, can you characterize your ability to, in a world where everyone is locked at home, be able to execute on pushing those things forward?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Yeah. Good questions both. As to the first, we were one of the first, if not the first, agency to strongly encourage employees to shift to telework. And by and large, they did that. And right now, we have shifted even further to mandatory telework for all but essential employees that have to go in -- we have an operation center that handles certain security issues, for instance. So we’ve been very, very productive over the last couple of weeks.
In fact, this week alone, in addition to some major issues that we voted on at our March 31st meeting, we also implemented the telehealth program based on legislation Congress passed and the President signed just last week. We’ve gotten the FCC/FTC collaboration effort I described out the door. So we’ve been really, really productive. That’s one of the things I was worried about is, as everyone shifts back home and has some of the same issues I do in terms of childcare and getting groceries and medicines and the like, how is it going to work? And it’s actually worked quite well, I’m proud to say. And that’s a testament to our agency’s incredible employees.
One of the things that I haven’t talked about publicly is that I try to do as much outreach as I can to employees or groups of employees. So just yesterday, for instance, I had a virtual townhall with the fantastic employees in our Wireline Competition Bureau, who’ve done incredible work just over the last week on telehealth, robocalls, and you name it, just to thank them for the work they’ve been doing and to hear what was on their mind. As a result of some of the issues that we have been hearing about, for instance, we proactively granted extra administrative leave to people who might need it to take care of children or to take care of elderly relatives and the like.
And being able to address that employee concern early on has brought us, I think, a lot of good will that our employees know that their health and safety is my first and foremost concern. And so when they do have free time to allocate to work, they’re working exceptionally hard. So I’m really, really grateful to them for that. It really is their finest hour as public servants.
As to the second, we’ve been exceptionally busy on getting some of these things done. Resolving the 5G fund and getting the 6 gigahertz items prepared for public release was not easy. It required collaboration across bureaus and offices. But nonetheless, we managed to get that done. And I anticipate with C band, L band, all the other spectrum issues that’s going to continue to be the case.
We’ve got a very good working relationship amongst the various bureaus and offices and the Chairman’s Office. We’ve been able to shift to conference calls and Zoom and whatnot, like anybody else. So I would not anticipate any slowdown whatsoever. If folks know anything about me it’s that I’m pretty impatient to get things done and get results. And that doesn’t change even though we’re now more in a virtual world as opposed to the physical one.
Dean Reuter: We’ve got more than one question pending now but maybe time for one more question. So let’s check in with this caller. Go ahead, caller.
Caller 10: I’m not an FCC lawyer. I practiced environmental law for 40 years, but I want to complement you on the emergency caffeine induced level of energy you have. But the work you’re doing, I’ve kept a somewhat distant eye on it for some time. I was suspicious when I saw you were an Obama appointee originally, but now I’m a fan. And I really feel you’re doing a splendid job. And I think you should be complemented.
Secondly, I wanted to ask you, and maybe in terms of your level of energy -- you seem to be a fountain of ideas. At University of Chicago Law School, did you study under David Currie, with whom I used to work in environmental law years ago?
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: This is incredible. So wow -- this is very random. Just a couple of days ago, I tweeted about this. Professor Currie was my favorite professor in law school. I had him for civil procedure. My first year I had him for federal jurisdiction later on. And I also -- the best experience was I did an independent study paper, what University of Chicago Law students call a 499, with him.
And this all came about because I one day was sitting around my apartment looking at a one-dollar bill. And I saw that line that it has on there. “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” And I just got to thinking, as a U Chicago Law geek sometimes does, “Where on earth does this come from and was there any debate about it?” And I found some article in the library talking about how this is a big constitutional debate in the 1860s during the Civil War.
And as it happens, at the time I was on Law Review, editing an article that Professor Currie had written about the Constitution and Congress. So I went to him, and I said, “Hey, do you know anything about this? Can I learn anything?” And he said, “This would be a great topic for a 499 paper.” So over the six months after that, under his supervision, we worked together on this paper. And I ultimately published it in the Oregon Law Review.
And he was a hero of mine, just one of the greatest teachers. I was scared to death of him in the classroom because he was a very energetic user of the Socratic method. But looking back on it now, my god, the things I remember from law school are typically the professors like him. And one of the things I’ve got, and I’m looking at it right now in my library, my home office, is the book he wrote on the Constitution in Congress: The Federalist [Period].
And he inscribed in it something that I cherish to this day, which is “To Ajit in joint remembrance of our labors in these vineyards.” And just to have the chance to work with a brilliant mind like that who inspired intellectual curiosity in me at an early age is something that I’m really, really grateful to the law school for and to him for. So even though he’s passed, he will always occupy a very special place in my heart.
Caller 10: I practiced law for 50 years, and he was the most brilliant man I ever knew in the practice of law. Anyway. So I can see his influence on you, and I’m happy about that. I hope your Law Review article made it into his volume on the history of the Constitution in the Congress. I’ll have to look for that. I’ve got that set, and I haven’t -- and I’ll look for that article and see if I can find it. He gave you credit for it, which is typical. That’s very good.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Oh, he did. Yeah. I can’t remember the name of it. “The Constitution and Congress: The Civil War,” or something like “The Civil War Years.” And yeah, I did make it into that first footnote. So to me, at least, that was just a thrill, even more than having this job or meeting Judge Judy. Getting recognized by David Currie, that’s a feather in the cap.
Dean Reuter: Well, Chairman Pai, this is Dean. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been a terrific call. I think we probably did set a record for number of questions and number of answers, coincidentally. So I appreciate your time. I appreciate you joining us today. Let me give you 30 seconds for a final thought, if you’d like to take it.
Hon. Ajit V. Pai: Oh, just to reiterate what I said from the beginning, thanks so much, Dean, and to The Federalist Society for giving me this opportunity. And thanks to all of you who engaged. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to every single question or every single issue. But if you ever want to get in touch, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email, send me a tweet. I really want to be as responsive as I can be and understand the full range of issues that are on the FCC’s plate from your perspective. So stay well, stay healthy, and stay home. And we’ll see you on the other side in person, hopefully, once all this is over.
Dean Reuter: Terrific. Thank you so much again, Chairman Pai. And to our audience, thank you for dialing in and for your thoughtful questions and comments. We are adjourned. Thank you very much, everyone.
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