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On his first full day as Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Republican Ajit Pai yesterday spoke to FCC staff and said one of his top priorities will be bringing broadband to all Americans.
“One of the most significant things that I’ve seen during my time here is that there is a digital divide in this country—between those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not,” Pai said (transcript). “I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide—to do what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else. We must work to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”
Pai promised to “hear all points of view—to approach every issue with a literal open door and a figurative open mind,” as the FCC “confronts this and many other challenges.”
Under previous Chairman Tom Wheeler, Pai voted against some items designed to bring broadband to poor people and rural areas.
In March 2016, he voted against an FCC order that updated the 31-year-old Lifeline phone subsidy program so that poor people can use a $9.25 monthly household subsidy from the Universal Service Fund to purchase home Internet or mobile broadband. Pai said he was willing to vote for the plan if its budget was limited to $1.75 billion a year, but the final order set it at $2.25 billion.
In July 2014, Pai voted against a plan to devote an extra $5 billion over five years toward expanding Wi-Fi networks in schools and libraries, particularly in rural and urban areas where broadband is lacking. Pai predicted that the move would require increases in universal services charges on Americans’ phone bills. In a related move later that year, the FCC voted to add 16¢ a month to individual bill surcharges in order to fund the expansion. Pai voted against the increase.
In December 2014, the FCC decided that ISPs who accept government subsidies to build rural broadband networks must provide speeds of least 10Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads, instead of the previous 4Mbps/1Mbps standard.

The move was opposed by AT&T, Verizon, and cable industry lobbyists.

Commissioner Pai supported the speed increase, but dissented in part because he wanted to give ISPs 10 years to build the networks instead of the six years required in the order.
Pai didn’t offer any specific initiatives for closing the digital divide yesterday, but in September 2016 he outlined a “digital empowerment agenda.” The plan included “remov[ing] regulatory barriers to broadband deployment,” changes to pole attachment rules, and “dig once” policies that install broadband conduit when roads are dug up during any road and highway construction project. He also proposed setting aside 10 percent of spectrum auction proceeds for deployment of mobile broadband in rural areas.
Pai suggested requiring mobile carriers to build out service to 95 percent of the population in areas where they have spectrum licenses; he noted that some licenses only required service for 66 percent or 75 percent of residents, a problem in sparsely populated rural areas.

At the same time, he proposed extending initial spectrum license terms from 10 years to 15 years to give the carriers more time to complete the construction.
Pai also proposed creating “gigabit opportunity zones” in areas where average household income is below 75 percent of the national median.
In these areas, state and local lawmakers would have to “adopt streamlined, broadband deployment-friendly policies,” and there would be tax incentives and tax credits for companies building high-speed networks.
Also yesterday, Senate Democrats proposed $20 billion in broadband infrastructure funding as part of a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal. While it’s not clear whether this specific proposal will get enough bipartisan support, Republicans backed the idea of including broadband in infrastructure spending, according to Morning Consult.

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