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New FCC Chairman Moves Quickly To Reverse Obama Policies


The Federal Communications Commission regulates everything from broadcasts to the internet, but it's not a government agency we hear a lot about. Last month, President Trump elevated commissioner Ajit Pai to FCC chairman and that didn't get much attention because Pai didn't have to go through Senate confirmation hearings. Now Pai is getting a lot of attention from consumer groups and others because he's trying to undo his predecessor's policies. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Ajit Pai is the son of Indian immigrants who settled in Kansas. A Republican, Pai's worked for Verizon, been a staffer on Capitol Hill and an attorney for the FCC. He was nominated as FCC commissioner in 2012 by President Obama. One of his pet projects at the commission has been rejuvenating AM radio. He spoke to me about it in 2013.


AJIT PAI: Whether it's the long-haul trucker who got used to listening to a station as he or she drove across the country to kids who listen to baseball games on warm summer nights, there's something about AM radio that I think is really embedded in our national culture.

NAYLOR: But some are unsettled by what Pai is pursuing now that he's chairman of the agency.

GIGI SOHN: He's chipping away at the foundation of what happened over the past eight years.

NAYLOR: Gigi's Sohn was counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler who stepped down on Inauguration Day. One of Pai's very first actions as the new chairman was to reverse one of Wheeler's last actions that added nine companies to a program to help low-income people pay for internet access. The Lifeline program gives subsidies of $9.25 a month. There are still some 900 companies that are eligible for the program, but Sohn says Pai's action does not bode well for consumers.

SOHN: I would say that Chairman Pai's philosophy is that less regulation is better, and it doesn't really matter how it might affect consumers, how it might affect the poor.

NAYLOR: The FCC would not make Pai available for an interview for this story. Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell served with Pai on the commission. He says Pai is not looking to get rid of the Lifeline program.

ROBERT MCDOWELL: Quite the opposite. I think he's talking about, you know, even shoring it up and making sure it's stable and efficient. So folks shouldn't misread that, I don't think, as somehow an end of the Lifeline program by any stretch of the imagination.

NAYLOR: In a statement, Pai said media reports of his actions on Lifeline were sensationalized and misleading. But there are other concerns about steps Pai has taken as chairman. The FCC has decided to end its efforts to cap the rates that prison inmates pay for phone calls to their families, saying it doesn't have the jurisdiction. And Democrats worry that Pai will reverse Chairman Wheeler's controversial action to guarantee net neutrality, that is, that all internet content deserves the same treatment.

Consumer advocates meanwhile are dismayed that Pai has dropped Wheeler's plan to force cable companies to offer app-based alternatives to set-top boxes. McDowell thinks Pai believes the FCC took on too much during Wheeler's tenure and that maybe it's time for the commission to trim its sails a bit.

MCDOWELL: He's not anti-consumer. Quite the contrary, I think he is very much about consumer protection. But I think also part of his philosophy says, let's let the marketplace experiment. Let's see what happens. If it's going in an anti-competitive way that harms consumers, then we'll act.

NAYLOR: Pai presides over his first open FCC meeting next Thursday. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: This story says the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, has dropped efforts to cap rates for prison calls. To clarify: While it is not defending that rate cap for in-state prison calls, it continues to support them for calls between states.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 7, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
This story says the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, has dropped efforts to cap rates for prison calls. To clarify: While it is not defending that rate cap for in-state prison calls, it continues to support them for calls between states.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.