Trump’s FCC chairman favors simpler satellite licensing rules

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump on Jan. 23 named Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission who favors simplifying satellite licensing rules, as the nation’s top telecom regulator.

Pai, 44, replaces Tom Wheeler, who stepped down Jan. 20 as FCC chairman.

Pai’s appointment does not require Senate confirmation because he was confirmed in 2012 when then-President Barack Obama nominated the former Verizon attorney to serve as one of the FCC’s five commissioners.

As a commissioner, Pai  supported AT&T’s $67 billion purchase of satellite broadcaster DirecTV and opposed mobile satellite services company Globalstar on using unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band for its proposed Terrestrial Low Power Service, or TLPS (Globalstar in December gave up on using the unlicensed spectrum in favor of using 11.5 MHz of its own spectrum for an LTE service).

“I am deeply grateful to the President of the United States for designating me the 34th Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission,” Pai said in a Jan. 23 statement. “I look forward to working with the new Administration, my colleagues at the Commission, members of Congress, and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”

In December 2015, Pai praised the FCC’s move to eliminate interim milestones for operators seeking to license new satellite systems in the U.S. — milestones that the satellite industry considered unnecessarily cumbersome and arguably sent operators in pursuit of friendlier regulatory environments such as the Isle of Man. Pai also supported the Satellite Industry Association’s proposal to let licensees “increase the number of earth stations operating under a blanket license without prior authorization.”

The satellite industry will be eager to see how Chairman Pai addresses the subjects of 5G and spectrum sharing. Wheeler rebuked the satellite industry last year for its unwillingness to even consider sharing Ka-band spectrum with terrestrial 5G services.

The industry will also want to know how or if satellite fits into Pai’s broadband goals. In his first address as chairman, Pai highlighted closing the digital divide as one of his top concerns.

“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 from cutting-edge communications services and those who do not,” he said Jan. 24 in remarks to the FCC. “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.”

Other countries, notably Australia and Mexico, have invested heavily in satellite as a means to bring internet access to unconnected regions. In a September speech titled “A Digital Empowerment Agenda,” Pai again discussed the importance of closing the digital divide, but made no mention of satellite as one of the solutions.