February 8, 2017 2:33 PM
Wheeler, for his part, took the reins of the Commission with more industry-specific knowledge than any prior Chairman--having been the head of two major industry associations. However, Wheeler had no specific policy goals, a general philosophy ("competition, competition, competition"), and a leadership style more accustomed to dictation than persuasion and cooperation. Thus, Wheeler's legacy as Chairman may have been destined to end up as bitterly disputed as the rules he would adopt.
Chairman Pai, on the other hand, has chosen to be much more inclusive--of both his fellow Commissioners and the public--in order to progress toward an ambitious policy priority; bridging the digital divide. Notwithstanding some predictable hyperbole from "net neutrality" advocates (dedicated to a dogma that "protects" consumers from a non-existent "threat"), and a sensational headline about "stopping services" to few, if any, customers (which Pai himself debunked), Chairman Pai has been very well-received. Importantly, Pai deserves credit for his commitment to humble/inclusive leadership, and for prioritizing the goal of improving access to advanced communications services of rural, and low income, Americans.
Good Ideas Don't Just Come from the Boss
The advantage of being the Chairman of an independent agency is not only the ability to set the agency's agenda, but also in the Chairman's solitary ability to control every matter on the agenda until the last minute, changing the item as needed to get the votes the Chairman wants. To give up this power requires real humility, but it offers the prospect of getting the best possible advice/information/criticism from one's Commission colleagues and the public.
On February 2nd, as part of a "pilot program," Chairman Pai elected to release to the public complete drafts of two items (an NPRM and a Report & Order) at the same time the items were included on the agenda for the FCC's next Open Meeting, on February 23, 2017. Pai hopes to make this a routine Commission practice in the future. Likewise, on Monday of this week, Chairman Pai pledged to share with the other Commissioners the content of matters that would be voted on at future FCC Open Meetings before disclosing this information to the public or members of the press. Finally, yesterday, he adopted two additional process reforms--at the suggestion of his fellow Commissioners, Michael O'Rielly (R) and Mignon Clyburn (D).
Leading Toward a Specific Goal
Chairman Pai's decision to enlist everyone's talents is smart; because he's going to need all the help he can get. You see, Pai has chosen to address a formidable problem that has long confounded policy-makers: the "digital divide," which has left many Americans without access to advanced communications services. In his first speech as Chairman (to Commission staff), Pai stated his belief that "one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide--to do what's necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to [all Americans]."
This was not, by any means, the first time that Pai has drawn attention to this problem. As recently as September of last year, then Commissioner, Pai released his "Digital Empowerment Agenda" which contained a number of ideas for things the Commission could do, either by itself or as part of a partnership with local governments, to spur broadband buildout to underserved communities throughout the country.
Yet, despite having his own ideas about how to help bridge the digital divide, Chairman Pai, consistent with his process reforms, seems more interested in soliciting the best ideas of others. Thus, at his first Open Meeting as FCC Chairman, Pai announced the formation of a "Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee" ("BDAC") to "provide advice and recommendations to the FCC on how to [accelerate broadband deployment in underserved areas]." And, while the group's first project will be to provide recommendations for how to bridge the digital divide "by reducing and/or removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment," there is no reason to think the group will only be used for one project. See Announcement and also Public Notice.
Nothing to Lose
The problem that Pai has chosen is as vexing as it is worthy, and Chairman Pai's willingness to "tie himself" to this problem is both ambitious and risky. However, as someone once said, "it's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
The full support of the FCC--and the private stakeholders, whose support the FCC is currently enlisting--will lead to cooperation from, at least some, state and local governments, and will improve access for some Americans. But, even in the worst case scenario, policymakers will at least have a better conception of the problem than they did before. In other words, by choosing a specific goal--along with his humble commitment to including the public, private stakeholders, and fellow Commissioners--Chairman Pai has made it more likely that some of the country's most neglected consumers will see a bigger slice by the end of his term.