FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is ostensibly the chief regulator of the telecoms industry. But the way he was chatting with the president of a prominent lobbying group, you could be forgiven for not knowing that.
At Mobile World Congress in L.A. on Tuesday, Pai joined the president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), Meredith Atwell Baker, on stage for a keynote discussion about 5G deployment, the digital divide, the sale of broadband spectrum, and more.
The discussion went from awkward to eerie as Baker — again, the head of a mobile industry lobbying firm — continuously flattered and joked with Pai, and the two ping-ponged complimentary talking points off of each other.
“To lead the world in 5G, we’re going to need a lot of great years,” Baker said. “With leadership like this, I know we will.”
Pai is perhaps most well known for his aggressive repealing of Obama-era net neutrality rules, a move which is generally thought to favor telecom companies. But he also played a role in a host of other decisions involving corporate consolidation and deregulation efforts. In other words, Pai’s stance that the communications industry should be left to its own devices has shaped incredibly pro-business, deregulatory FCC policy during his tenure.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to witness Pai and Baker cuddling up to each other.
One of the pair’s biggest points, reiterated over and over, was the need for speed in 5G deployment. The FCC plays a big role in that.
First, the FCC has been attempting to hasten the sale of airwaves to private companies, like Verizon, AT&T, and anyone else who wants to build a 5G network. That is a contentious topic of late because Pai is basically selling off an unprecedented amount of government property to private industry, which could leave the government with little options if it wants to utilize those bandwidths in the future (and could already be impacting the work of government agencies like NOAA and NASA). That’s something Pai’s FCC and other federal agencies, like the Department of Commerce, have been arguing about.
Additionally, the FCC has been trying to tear down regulatory red tape so that these companies can actually build out the infrastructure of the networks. Pai recently lost legal battles on that front, when judges ruled that Pai’s discarding of environmental regulations in favor of speedy development were not OK.
The Trump administration (and telecoms industry) are pushing 5G development so hard because they believe the stakes are incredibly high on a global scale. The so-called “race to 5G” is being fought between the U.S. and China, with each country (and their corporations) vying for dominance.
The thinking goes that whoever owns the most 5G infrastructure will have control over the world’s communications; also, the executives of whichever companies win those fights will be the richest. This is a priority for businesses for obvious reasons, but is a priority for the government for security reasons (it doesn’t want Chinese companies like Huawei managing the world’s messages). It is also viewed as a bargaining chip in Trump’s trade war with China.
Some have criticized the stakes of this “race” as overblown; a fear-mongering way to justify bureaucrats like Pai selling off America’s digital resources so communications companies can get rich off of 5G.
Whether you buy the “need for speed” or not, it’s clear that Pai does. Just ask his pals at the CTIA.