A Slice of Pai -My Interview with an FCC Commissioner

Cover Photo By: Daniel Wilson, ENP – @NewYorkWilson
LISTEN to the Podcast version of this interview on SoundCloud

Without argument, communications is at the core of all social interaction today. The agency tasked with regulating interstate and international communication that occurs by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and US territories is the Federal Communications Commission. It’s this US government agency that is overseen by Congress that maintains itself as the primary authority for communications law, regulation, and technological innovation.

The agency tasked with regulating interstate and international communication that occurs by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and US territories is the Federal Communications Commission. It’s this US government agency that is overseen by Congress that maintains itself as the primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation.

Doing this provides the commission the opportunity to manage the industry by promoting competition, innovation and investment in various communication technologies that include broadband services and facilities. Through their guidance on policy and regulations the commission is responsible for things such as:

Supporting the nation’s economy by ensuring an appropriate competitive framework for the unfolding of the communications revolution

Encouraging the highest and best use of spectrum domestically and internationally

Revising media regulations so that new technologies flourish alongside diversity and localism and

Providing leadership and strengthening the defense of the nation’s communication infrastructure.

While many citizens know the FCC only as the governmental agency that fined WKRP’s Dr. Johnny Fever for saying bugger, kicked Howard Stern off FM Radio and over onto satellite, and the government ‘geek squad’ that runs around in black vans covered with antenna, monitoring for people swearing on CB radios. Something that I was afraid of when I was growing up as a teenager in the 70’s.

If they are not cracking down on foul mouthed 14 year olds, what are they doing? Well to answer that question we went to the top or as close to the top as the national police would let me get and that’s with Commissioner Ajit Pai.

Commissioner Pai is one of four Commissioners; two Republican and two Democrat, appointed by the President. They report to Congress under the direction of Chairman Tom Wheeler, also chosen by the President.

[Fletch]
Commissioner Pai, welcome and thank you for taking the time to educate the public on their FCC.

[Ajit Pai]
It’s always great to collaborate with you, I’m just glad to have a chance to see you and in person.

[Fletch]
You were one of the first Commissioners on Twitter, which really was a pretty big step for the agency. How is that going?

[Ajit Pai]
It’s been fantastic and it’s one of the things that I never anticipated taking off as it has. I first announced I was joining Twitter at our very first public meeting in May of 2012 when I became a Commissioner and some of my colleagues quietly said to me afterward, ‘You’re nuts!’.

Rule number one on the internet: “Don’t feed the trolls”, and there’s never a better way to feed them than by getting on Twitter and posting your thoughts about telecom issues.

What I found in the year since, is that people enjoy having access to public servants directly through that medium and I personally find it really rewarding to get all kinds of feedback on my work and to have people like you who’ve brought issues to my attention; Issues that might have languished in the analog age, but now thanks to this platform I can become educated and so I have found it an unadulterated good.

I’m happy to say that all four of my colleagues are now on Twitter, a number of FCC staff are now on there and it’s kind of a given now that everyone expects that people will be on Twitter so that they can learn and send messages out.

[Fletch]
A couple of people said to me, “We follow you on Twitter, Fletch, and we see Commissioner Pai tweeting, that’s not really him tweeting. That’s got to be one of his staff members.” I can tell you, knowing you, those tweets are all in your voice and that’s you behind the Twitter.

[Ajit Pai]
Much to my wife’s chagrin, it’s me constantly looking at my Twitter feeds, I try to learn things, constantly posting throughout the day. There are so many issues that the FCC has jurisdiction over, and it’s just really a great platform for me to be able to engage the American public, so it really is me. Theirs is no bot behind it, there’s no staffer. That’s the great thing about the internet age, it’s that’s really reduced the figurative distance between the government and the governed and I take the notion of being a public servant very seriously and part of that is being as responsive as I possibly can be and Twitter is the ultimate example of doing that.

[Fletch]
That’s one of the things that impresses me most with you, is that you take your job as a public servant so seriously. You’re asked to make a lot of tough decisions and, sometimes, you’ve made decisions that aren’t a popular decision, but they are the right decision. And when I listen to you defend those, the best explanation was, “I know this isn’t optimal, but this is the law right now and we have to respect the law.”

[Ajit Pai]
That’s one of the most difficult things that I’ve had to confront in this job is doing the right thing even when the political winds are against you. At the end of the day I’ve got to be able to live with my own conscience and with the hope that I live up to my oath, which is to defend the laws and the constitution of the United States. The public, as I see it, might not be the way that other people see it, but at the end of the day, that’s the way I’ve got to approach the job and do my best within the confines of the law.

[Fletch]
I think a lot of people don’t know who the FCC is really is. They are a Federal Commission, but who are they? Who do you work for?

[Ajit Pai]
In a way we all work for ourselves, so there are five commissioners at the FCC, each one of us is appointed by the President, and confirmed by the Senate.

Our terms are staggered, each of us get’s a five year term. When you get here, for better or worse, each Commissioner is like an island unto himself or herself; who are led by a Chairman who sets the agenda and who decides at our monthly meetings what we’re going to vote on. In terms of the other Commissioners you can pick what issues you want to talk about, what speeches you want to give, what statements you want to make. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom.

Ultimately not to be cheesy about it, I see my client as the American people and that’s part of the reason why I’ve chosen issues like multi-line telephone systems. Those are issues that impact real people where I can effect a change and where it doesn’t matter if I have the gavel or not. I can use my pulpit to try and improve the public safety of the American people and that’s such a rewarding thing for a small town kid from Kansas to be able to say.

[Fletch]
In a
way you work for me?

[Ajit Pai]
That’s exactly right! I hope you don’t fire me anytime soon.

[Fletch]
Speaking of that,
 your term is coming up.

[Ajit Pai]
Yeah.

[Fletch]
Obviously you don’t know [if you’re re-nominated] yet, but what’s the process to extend that?

[Ajit Pai]
My term is up in June of 2016, I could be re-nominated for another term and that’s a decision that people with a far higher pay grade than mine are going to have to make. Until they make it, I’m going to be focused on giving this term and this job my all. It’s been a privilege of a lifetime to have been here for almost four years now. I’m just grateful to the President and just to the senate for letting me have this chance.

[Fletch]
Where does that nomination come from?

[Ajit Pai]
It has to be made by the White House and traditionally [since] I’m a member of the minority here at the FCC, the Senate leader of the party at power will make a recommendation to the White House. So, in this case it would be Senator McConnell consulting with his colleagues who would have to make a recommendation to President Obama.

[Fletch]
Well, personally I think for me you’ve done a great job.

[Ajit Pai]
Well thanks.

[Fletch]
You’ve certainly carried our MLTS issue with Kari’s Law forward. That would not have happened without your pulpit, without your guidance, without the speeches. I’m going to tell you; very few people know this, but I just got an email this morning that the state of Tennessee has just entered a new bill for Kari’s Law.

[Ajit Pai]
Fantastic, but see this is a classic example where I’m not the match. I mean, I might have been the one who helped to strike it a little bit, but people like you are the ones who are banging the drum. Making sure that people are aware of this issue and my part in this was very small, as you know. It’s just as you said using the pulpit to try to broaden awareness. It’s people like, people like the [American Hotel and Lodging] industry and the others in the public safety community. Legislators like Congressman Gohmert and people in Tennessee. Those are the people who are affecting change. I’m glad to be just one part of the mosaic that’s helping to make people safer.

[Fletch]
Well if anything you’ve been the catalyst driving it forward, you given it a certain level of stature saying that this is important and it needs to be done. It was two years ago that I first met you face to face in this very office on the same chairs and the same map on the wall.

[Ajit Pai]
Yes.

[Fletch]
Here we are, we have five or six states with new legislation, several states with updated legislation. I look back on that and I say, “Wow! I’ve been able to accomplish something!”, and that’s very satisfying for me.

[Ajit Pai]
Well it’s incredible and I don’t know about you, but now whenever I check into a hotel I always look … I know you’ve done this recently, I always look at that phone and then I look at the people walking around and how many of them will never know that they are safer because of the efforts that we’ve made on MLTS. That’s the great thing about it, I mean they don’t have to know our names, but and when that emergency strikes they are not going to face that same horrific situation that Kari’s daughter did.

[Fletch]
I was out in a Staybridge in California and I checked in and there’s a big huge 911 on the door, and there was a big huge 911 on the phone and I went to the front desk and said, “Where does 911 go?” To the 911 PSAP. Where would you think it should go? Thinking a year ago that would not have been the response. I then took a picture of the phone and I tweeted it out. You liked it and re-tweeted it. The hotels have to understand, look this is not against them this is promoting them. I’m staying at someplace where I think they do the right thing.

[Ajit Pai]
Absolutely right and that issue has been such a labor of love, for me and I know for you as well. It’s the progress hasn’t been as fast as we’d like but boy once that boulder start going down the hill, I mean we’ve really got the moment and it’s just been so rewarding to work with you and with Hank and so many other in this.

Well I appreciate that, I really appreciate that, it was the right thing to do and it was the right cause.

[Fletch]
Government is changing, with all these social media. What do you see the FCC’s role in social media?

[Ajit Pai]
I think part of it is that we have to use it. I mean a lot of cases, a lot of people in government just aren’t familiar with all these new platforms that people are using and I think its incumbent upon people like me to be as familiar with every aspect of technology that people are using, because if we’re going to pretend to regulate this it would be helpful to know something about it first. I think also it’s important for us to be as open and transparent, as responsive as we can be. Part of that involves modernizing our own processes. For example it used to be the case when I came to the FCC in 2007 that your only option for filing something was in paper and you had to direct it to a certain person and there was very little online and website wasn’t as accessible as it could be.

I think with people using all these great social media platforms, we should take that as an inspiration. Modernize our own processes so that people can file complains online very easily. People can figure out how the FCC is doing very easily. They can get the information they want quickly and rapidly. That’s something I’ve tried to evangelize around the building to varied success I might say.

[Fletch]
The [FCC has] rebooted the webpage a couple of times over the past few years and it’s gotten markedly better each time around. I use the electronic comment filing system for the things that I do. But, if I have something important, I’ll email it, I’ll tweet it those work too.

[Ajit Pai]
Yeah exactly right.

[Fletch]
How does Joe Citizen reach out to the FCC? I’m not going tweet to a commissioner and say I want this fixed right away, but there’s a process to do that. How do they carry those complaints forward?

[Ajit Pai]
A part of it is you can navigate our website I mean as you said we’ve made some improvements and it’s still not optimal despite having spent several million dollars on it. Bearing that if you can’t find what you want on the website, you can always get in touch with us.

Just last week as a matter of fact a foreigner manufacturer who had a question “I want to sell my product to the United States but I don’t know exactly what authorization to get and who to talk to.” I got an email myself from this gentleman.

I put him in touch with our office of industry and technology to figure out what the answer was and so that we could finally get an answer to this person who otherwise would just be left in the dark. Same thing with consumers, I get complaints from consumers all the time and I refer them on to our Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

Get in touch with us, email me at ajit.pai@fcc.gov. Email the other Commissioners, Tweet at us, and that’s something as you pointed earlier I do monitor that myself and so I do take it seriously.

If American people have a concern, or a complaint or gripe or a tomato I want to be able to receive it. Maybe not the tomato so much, but the rest of that I really do mean it when I say that they should get in touch with us any way that they can and I’ll try my best to give them an answer.

[Fletch]
I don’t think people realize the FCC is as public as it is. [The Public] can attend any meeting downstairs they are open to the public. People do come in and protest once in a while.

[Ajit Pai]
Right.

[Fletch]
The look on your face was priceless. You know the incident I’m talking about.

[Ajit Pai]
Yeah.

[Fletch]
Fortunately they were harmless and were escorted out, but the Commission is incredibly open and transparent and I think people just don’t realize that.

[Ajit Pai]
That’s one of the sticking things to me is that given how important the industry we regulate is, I’m kind of shocked to be honest with you that the American people don’t know about a lot of the things that we do. A lot of people think of us as the agency that goes after broadcasters for the wardrobe malfunction issue or something like that. Well given the wide set of technology is in internet and cable and satellite and all the rest of it. It’s so critical to virtually everything we do, and how we raise our kids that I’d like think that our issues are front page of the news paper kind of issues, but hopefully overtime people to come to appreciate us more.

[Fletch]
I think the commission has done a great job and I think, you personally, you bring an essence to the commission that in tune with today’s people, with today’s technologies. You understand the technology, you embrace the technology. To
me we need more people like you here.

[Ajit Pai]
If you can just tell my wife that, that’d be great. It’s always nice to get support …

[Fletch]
I’ll write you a note if you write me a note, how’s that?

[Ajit Pai]
Sounds good, it will get me out of the dog house, but I really do appreciate it. It’s one of the things that whenever this job is done I want to be able to say that I helped to make the FCC a little more accessible, a little more responsive and hopefully more forward thinking. If I can be able to say that then I’ll count my time here as a success.

[Fletch]
Now of course, you don’t do it by yourself, you’ve got an incredible staff behind you.

[Ajit Pai]
My God, yeah.

[Fletch]
How many are in the Pai organization?

[Ajit Pai]
Although I’d wish there were some vast conspiracy that I could call upon to do all my bidding in actuality it is a few really hardworking brilliant dedicated people who are in my office. I have three advisors Chief of Staff, Mathew Berry and two other advisors Nick Degani and Brendan Carr. I also have two administrative assistance Lori Alexiou and Deanne Erwin. At any given point of time we have a number of interns as well who help us on research and writing. They are honestly the brains and the bran of the operation.

[Fletch]
It always seems to be that way, doesn’t it?

[Ajit Pai]
I feel incredibly blessed to have been here at the exact same time that they were willing to step into this roles because there’s literally no way that I could do any of this without them. It’s a really demanding job anyway and if I didn’t have the benefit of their expertise and their dedication I’d be up the proverbial creek as we say back home.

[Fletch]
Well, best of luck, I hope you are re-nominated and if you’re not I hope you’re onto bigger and better things!

[Ajit Pai]
The Power Ball didn’t work out! I really do appreciate you, Mark and one of the other great things about this job has been getting a chance to meet you, to work with you, to appreciate all the things you do to make the American people safe. Whenever I get a chance I try to give you as much credit as I can because it’s people like you who really are helping us live up to the public interest.

IN CLOSING:

I greatly appreciate the Commissioner affording me this time out of his precious schedule. Over the past few years, I am proud to be able to call him not only a colleague, but a friend. Despite his position on the 8th Floor of the Commission Headquarters building on the South West side of DC,  he has stayed grounded and retained his ‘small town boy from Kansas’ roots, as well as his love for AM radio.

I am very thankful that my work has afforded me the opportunity to interact with the Commissioner, and help carve out my little mark on the industry.

Follow me on Twitter @Fletch911

Read my other AVAYA CONNECTED Blogs

Mark J. Fletcher, ENP is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. As a seasoned professional with nearly 30 years of service, he provides the strategic roadmap and direction of Next Generation Emergency Services in both the Enterprise and Government portfolios at Avaya. In 2014, Fletcher was made a member of the NENA Institute Board in the US, where he provides insight to State and Federal legislators globally driving forward both innovation and compliance.

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