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Senate Reconfirms FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Despite Objections

The Senate confirmed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s second term by a vote of 52 to 41 on Monday, with debate splitting along party lines.

Democrats objected to Pai’s efforts to roll back net neutrality rules put in place under the Obama administration, and to the likelihood that the FCC would approve Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.’s  (SBGI)  $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media Co.  (TRCO) . Republicans supporting Pai cited his promotion of broadband networks in rural areas and other under-served markets, and market-friendly views.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) homed in on a recurring theme for Democrats, an interest in preserving rules preventing Internet service providers from blocking or throttling legal traffic, or creating fast lanes that give priority to some content.

“It’s hard to describe a future without net neutrality,” Schatz said.

President Obama named Pai an FCC commissioner in 2012, and Trump appointed him chairman in January.

 

A former telecom lawyer, Pai argues that former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler overstepped in 2015 when he changed broadband rules. Wheeler reclassified broadband under Title II of the Communications Act, which treats it as a regulated telecom service akin to a utility. Pai says the move treats broadband under 1930s-era telecom regulations that stifle investment. Pai has proposed returning to the lighter broadband regulatory regime from the Clinton era until 2015, which treated broadband as an information service.

While big ISPs such as Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) and AT&T Inc. (T)  have said they do not want to block or throttle service, they favor the easier regulatory treatment that Pai proposes.

“Without a firm rule these companies may have incentives to change the Internet as we know it,” Schatz warned.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said that net neutrality helps support an app industry that has created 1.7 million jobs, with 92,000 of them in her home state. Jobs related to apps are growing at 30%, she said, versus a growth rate of 1.6% for other employment.

“Undoing the existing net neutrality laws that are on the books is not in the public interest,” Cantwell said.

Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) described a “corporate takeover at the FCC,” arguing that Pai had “worked at breakneck speed” to make the commission “a big business support group.”

Warren and other Democrats warned that Pai would approve Sinclair’s merger with Tribune, creating a TV station group that reaches 72% of U.S. households.

 

“If the alarm bells haven’t already gone off this is where they should start ringing like crazy,” Warren said. Sinclair has been a big supporter of Trump and Republican causes generally, she said.

Meanwhile, Jerry Moran (R-Kans.)  and Shelley Moore Capito (R.-W.V.) applauded Pai’s commitment to expanding broadband to rural and under-served communities.

John Thune (R-S.D.) said that Pai had brought greater transparency to the FCC in his 9 months as Chairman and suggested that Pai was correct to “hit the reset button” on Wheeler’s net neutrality rules.

 

“The best way to provide long-term protections for the Internet is for Congress to pass bi-partisan legislation,” Thune suggested to his colleagues.

Such legislation could remove the legal uncertainty that has hung over the FCC’s authority to enforce net neutrality rules, as companies have challenged its decisions in courts. Given the difficulty that the Republican House and Senate have had passing tax cuts and repealing Obama’s health care legislation, do not count on legislation to resolve the disputes over net neutrality any time soon.