Analysis Fresh from being mocked by Burger King, Ajit Pai – chairman of America's broadband watchdog, the Federal Communications Commission – has further undermined his authority by attacking a key advisory committee to his own regulator.
And all because he didn't like being criticized by it.
A figure of hate – someone who behaves impulsively, childishly, and with a wild lack of decorum – is a common sight on reality TV shows. The election of Apprentice star Donald Trump has not only brought that trope into the White House but federal government too.
Earlier this week, Pai addressed a meeting of his Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) during which he spoke approvingly of himself in some depth. Notably, however, Pai failed to address one of the biggest topics of concern with the committee itself: that it overwhelmingly represents the interests of Big Cable, ignores concerns from local government officials, and downplays efforts by cities to roll out their own affordable internet connectivity.
It has been no small issue, either. Pai has received letters not only from all the local government reps on the BDAC but also the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, and US Conference of Mayors – in which nearly 250 representatives, representing the entire country, complained about the disparity.
For instance, Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose in California, on Thursday quit the BDAC because "the industry-heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public."
In other words, the committee champions whatever the cable giants want, regardless of whether that's best for the American people.
Fortunately, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn was on hand to address the issue this very week, and noted in her speech to the BDAC that it was "regrettable that the concerns of localities do not appear to have been fully addressed" in the committee's reports.
She went on: "I noticed that there was an expressed preference for industry over municipalities in broadband deployment efforts. As I have said many, many times before, one size does not fit all, and private industry infrastructure investments do not always flow to communities that are most in need."
Legal, not legal
As just one example – but a critical one – the local government representatives on the BDAC felt the need to write a minority report [PDF] in which they point out that many of the proposals put forward are probably illegal.
"The reports are grounded in a flawed theory that the FCC possesses certain legal authority that we believe, and a review of case law will affirm, that it does not possess," the reps warned. "Moreover, because state and local interests were far outnumbered in both the BDAC itself and on the various working groups, the proposed 'consensus reports' more often than not reflect only industry’s interests while turning a blind eye to the position of municipalities."
The local government representatives further noted that "the legal fiction of the Majority was the basis for almost every recommendation."
But Pai ignored all that in order to tell the BDAC about how its work had "made my life a little easier," how it "reflects a core tenet of my policymaking approach," and then regaled them with tales of his trips across America. "During my first year as chairman, I embarked on a Digital Divide Tour covering nearly 20 states, over 40 stops, and more than 4,000 miles in rental cars," he wittered.
Just for good measure, this week the FCC boss celebrated his first year in charge by publishing an eight-page document of his own achievements.
If all this sounds like the vain boasting of an insecure and slightly pathetic figure, well, then you'd be right. Unfortunately, Pai is also undermining his own agency, as a report this week reveals.
Earlier this month, Pai announced he had decided to expand the membership of the watchdog's critical Intergovernmental Advisory Committee (IAC) from 15 to 30.
No one was quite sure why. But it has now emerged that the move was as a direct result of a letter sent from the IAC criticizing Pai for failing to tap the committee's expertise on a range of decisions – something that manifested itself in Pai generally parroting the talking points of the cable industry without talking to representatives from his own committee to gain a broader perspective.
The letter has not been made public, and the IAC acts entirely in private, but such is the groups irritation with Pai, seen as a corporate shill, that a copy was leaked to local government news site Route Fifty.
IAC chair, Elin Swanson Katz, even spoke with the publication, and noted that the panel had "felt discouraged from really opining on broadband deployment issues including public rights of way and potential preemption issues."
The letter said the IAC was "frustrated" with Pai, and complained that its meetings were "long presentations without any dialogue."
Even more remarkable than the letter, or the fact it has been leaked, however, is Pai's response: he simply cancelled the IAC's January meeting and then announced [PDF] – without telling anyone – that he was going to expand the committee to 30 members.
Pai can't fire anyone on the panel without creating a huge stink and causing them to go public with their concerns, so he is expanding it. Everyone expects that he will simply repeat what he has done on the BDAC and stack the committee with industry representatives, putting him further in the pocket of Big Cable.
Unfortunately, what Ajit wants is unlikely to be what Ajit needs. Removing or undercutting crucial voices just because they say things you don't like may work in a small business, but it only ever comes back to bite you in a larger public policy context.
If you ever wanted to see what happens when a spoilt nerd gets into a position of power without having learned any of life's important lessons, now's your chance. He's over at 445 12th Street SW in Washington DC, just around the corner from the Potbelly Sandwich Shop. Catch him while you can. ®