Pai’s Polka Party: FCC Head Talks Up Infrastructure Investment


WASHINGTON, D.C. — How’s the view from the Captain’s Chair for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai?

Four years after his last appearance at the American Cable Association‘s ACA Summit — an annual 2 1/2-day gathering designed to bring the smallest of multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) operators access to the policymakers and legislators that affect their business — Pai was pleased to be back.

Pai was also in his typical jovial mood as ACA President Matthew Polka conducted a post-breakfast 8am Keynote Q&A with Pai on Thursday (3/30) before ACA members boarded a group buses that transported them on a 1.5-mile journey from the Grand Hyatt to Capitol Hill for a daylong series of Congressional appointments.In true Pai fashion, Pai began his chat with Polka by “letting bygones be bygones” about his beloved Kansas City Chiefs’ 2016 NFL Playoffs elimination by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Polka and the ACA are based in The Steel City.

Asked how things are going now compared to 2013, Pai laughed, saying, “It’s been great!”

Pai, in his 2013 visit, had less than one year under his belt as a Republican FCC Commissioner.

“It’s been a privilege to work at the FCC all these many years, but especially now — getting the chance to lead the agency and set an agenda that’s going to be proactive and responsive to consumer welfare,” said Pai. “We will help the industry to have the maximum incentive to invest and innovate. It’s an exciting time to be in the communications and regulatory space, and I daresay for those of you in the industry, too.”

Pai personally recognizes the work of ACA members as “hard,” and wants to make sure the FCC enables them to do what they do best — “building digital opportunity for Americans across this country.”

Polka responded by noting how impressed he was by Pai’s passion and commitment for “closing the digital divide,” one of the first things he said he wished to accomplish when first joining the FCC. What impressed Polka the most? Eliminating this divide, in Pai’s mind, requires working with private networks and consumers. “That’s something we hadn’t heard for a long time,” Polka said.

With new leadership across Washington, Pai hopes that everyone recognizes that building digital infrastructure is “the challenge of our times.”

He said, “I personally recognize that it is not easy to do. As I’ve said for many years these risks don’t have to be taken. The capital doesn’t have to be spent. The crews don’t have to be hired. And, we want to make sure you take that massive business decision and build out in all of these areas. We don’t view you as an enemy but rather as somebody we can work with to better enable our citizens to enjoy digital opportunity.”

Polka’s response? “Isn’t that refreshing to hear,” he said as laughter and applause came from the crowd of early-morning attendees.

Shifting to the swift pace of change being seen at the Pai-led FCC, the Chairman was asked by Polka if the pace was going to continue. Pai responded that, being in the minority for the last 4 1/2 years, he’s had a lot of time to put “policy prescriptions” together.

“Time isn’t on our side,” Pai said. “I want to make sure that we have the regulatory framework and a method that is good for consumers.”

What can ACA members expect to see in the short term?

“Infrastructure investment is the No. 1 priority,” Pai said, noting that the Commission is looking at all of the regulations on the books and trying to figure out if any of them are “holding back innovation and investment.”

Pai notes that the Commission has been aggressive and proactive under his chairmanship, and shared some details about his first “road trip,” which saw Pai make in-person visits in the Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, areas, after speaking at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh earlier this month.

“Getting on the road and getting to see things firsthand is just an incredible experience,” said Pai, who is known for his visits to AM and FM radio stations. “To be able to hear from operators how hard it is to build these [broadband] networks, and to hear from entrepreneurs who are building businesses based on those networks and creating jobs in places you wouldn’t expect … it’s incredible and it really infuses in me a sense of hope about the future and the motivation to do what we can at the FCC to aid that motivation.”