Power

At least the internet hasn't crashed: Ajit Pai on the FCC and COVID-19

Critics contend that the FCC could be doing more, but the chairman says industry has stepped up.

Ajit Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says a collaborative approach is paying off during the coronavirus crisis.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In this disorienting and terrifying moment in American history, there's one sliver of good news: The internet seems to be working.

Internet providers in some hard-hit countries have asked users to ration their usage, and European Union officials Thursday pressured Netflix into reducing its streaming quality to save bandwidth for everyone else. But in the U.S., so far at least, communications networks are surviving an explosion of videoconferencing, distance learning and shelter-in-place streaming.


Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.


That makes Ajit Pai very happy.

In an interview with Protocol on Thursday, the chairman of the FCC said his agency has been working with the White House, other federal agencies and private industry to plot out a strategy for keeping Americans connected during this crisis.

"It's been a very collaborative effort so far," Pai said, "and I'm glad to say, thus far, that the internet infrastructure across the country, by and large, has held up under the increased usage.

That doesn't mean things are perfect, however. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — who now consults for T-Mobile and Microsoft — says that connectivity for people in rural and poor areas would be better if the FCC had done more in the past to improve its lifeline program. And former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the FCC could be doing more now if a Republican majority hadn't reversed the way it regulates broadband providers.

But Pai said he's focused on doing "everything we can within our authority," as it exists today, including launching a voluntary "Keep Americans Connected" pledge for communications providers, making more spectrum available to ease digital congestion, and granting waivers related to the agency's Lifeline program, which subsidizes access for low-income Americans.

Protocol spoke with Pai from his home just outside Washington; this interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. I understand you are also working from home.

I am indeed, yes, working from home. I tried to set a good example and have strongly encouraged our co-workers to do the same. And thanks to our hard-working team, we've been able to keep everybody connected and, for the most part, productive.

How's your broadband holding up? Any particular tools you're finding you're super reliant on?

Pretty much all of them? Yes, cellular connectivity, of course, to make phone calls. Wi-Fi to keep the kids studying on their iPads. And that's enabled me to edit documents and collaborate with co-workers on my laptop. So pretty much all the tools that one would expect, both as a worker and as a parent, and it's been very helpful to me so far.

What's the most important thing that you're doing in terms of your agency work at the FCC for COVID-19 response right now?

Overwhelmingly, the top priority over the last week and several weeks actually has been to ensure that Americans stay connected to the communications technologies that are so important to them. Last week, for instance, we rolled out the Keep Americans Connected pledge, through which now over 200 broadband providers have committed to making sure that services are not cut off to residential or small-business customers if they're unable to pay bills due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, to waive any late fees that those customers may incur because of economic circumstances related to the pins pandemic, then also open up any Wi-Fi hot spots to any American who might need them. And even beyond that, we've encouraged companies to think even more broadly about going beyond the pledge and encouraged all kinds of different options for connectivity. And I'm glad to say they've done that, from lowering data caps or getting rid of data caps, to jumping speed. These are the kinds of things we need to think creatively about as America emerges into more telework, telehealth and remote-learning environments.

Are you satisfied with uptake of the pledge by rural broadband providers? What does that look like versus sort of the big guys and brand names that people might know?

I've been incredibly impressed. In fact, we've had now, as I said, 200 broadband providers who have signed up, we'll be announcing even more providers who signed up just in the last 24 hours. And to be sure, a few of those companies with the names of everybody would know, but the vast majority are names that might only be known to the people in some of these rural areas or smaller markets where some of these smaller operators have chosen to focus their efforts.

And I'm really grateful to them for doing that because, obviously, connectivity in big cities is one thing, but in some of these rural areas, it can sometimes be very, very difficult to participate in some of these life activities right now: telework, telehealth and in remote living in particular. And so these were the providers that are really important in terms of stepping up and continuing to deliver that connectivity.

The FCC is also allowing more spectrum to be available to some providers. How much spectrum is being made available, and how long you expect that to continue?

We've been very flexible on that front. Initially, we granted, for example, T-Mobile a dispensation to be able to use a certain 600 MHz spectrum to enhance its wireless offering in some bigger cities. We also did the same a couple days ago with U.S. Cellular and [Wednesday] with Verizon. And the nature of spectrum being used and the amount of spectrum in question differs depending on the particular application, but overall, the goal is the same: to make sure that those wireless phones that are going to be more important than ever are able to benefit from the maximum amount of the airways feasible under our rules.

Let's talk a little bit about the Lifeline program. Can you talk about what changes are happening there in response to the COVID-19 situation?

Absolutely, we recognize that low-income consumers in particular are going to need connectivity just as much as anybody else. And so we made some tweaks to some of the administrative rules regarding the Lifeline program to enable consumers and companies that participate in that program to benefit from it. And for example, in particular, we have relaxed some of the recertification requirements that customers have to make, especially recertifying that they are eligible to be in the program. And similarly on the company side, we had some administrative rules requiring agents to register through the FCC and others, and so we've relaxed some of those rules so that both from a customer and a company perspective, those folks can focus on getting and staying connected through the Lifeline program as opposed to jumping through some of the procedural hoops that we've instituted for a long time.

Are there any other changes to that or other low-income programs on the table right now?

One of the things I specifically exhorted the broadband industry to do was to make sure that they had low-income programs, that they offer services, and that they were even faster and cheaper than ever before. And some of the companies have done that by upping the speeds that are available to the FCC's definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps. I also exhorted those companies that don't have a low-income customer offering to institute such a program, and I'm hopeful that many of them will do that. And we're taking other steps as well, thinking outside the box to make sure that we can provide the most cost-effective solutions for customers who have obviously had economic circumstances beyond their control that they're struggling with right now.

Have you been in touch with the White House over the FCC's role in coronavirus response, or has the White House asked the agency to take any sort of specific action to help out in this time?

We've both collaborated across the field. And so I've been in touch with some of the folks of the White House, for example, the National Economic Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and we've encouraged them to participate in some of our conference calls with industry and other groups, as well, to make sure we're on the same page. Because at the end of the day, the Keep Americans Connected pledge, while it's administered by the FCC, it's all obviously a critical priority across government, because it underlies so many of the tools that are necessary for fighting the coronavirus pandemic. And both with the administration and with Congress, we look forward to continuing to collaborate to make sure that the government is doing everything it can to help Americans in pretty dire straits.

What are you hearing the telecom companies say that they need right now?

So certainly they've been very active in trying to get certain regulatory dispensations. So, for example, the spectrum dispensations we gave — the special temporary authority we gave T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon — that came about as a result of companies privately negotiating and trying to figure out ways to maximize the benefit of those airways.

And then we're able to act relatively quickly. There are other things that we're doing proactively, for example, to make sure we understand how the networks are operating and how resilient they are given the uptake and usage. And those are the kinds of things they've also been very responsive about.

I also have been collaborating with other agencies to try to get a sense of how they are seeing the internet infrastructure. So for example, the Department of Homeland Security has an agency called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and we've been in touch as well to make sure we're on the same page — understanding if there are pressure points or any cybersecurity challenges we need to be thinking about and getting in touch with industry with.

What do you wish you could do that you can't right now?

That's a good question. One of the things that has been helpful is the hours that we've [spent with] congressional leaders and staff since last week, for example, to obtain funding for in-home devices for use by teachers and students and patients. The FCC is currently prohibited from providing those types of devices under the Communications Act, and getting congressional action on that topic would be helpful.

Similarly, a telemedicine pilot, I've been speaking about telemedicine for years now … and that is going to become even more important in the context of dealing with the pandemic. And so getting a telemedicine pilot program quickly deployed and significantly expanded along the lines of our connected care pilot program, that would be very helpful as well. Same thing in terms of a remote-learning pilot program. I think that, too, could be something where Congress could take action and could help us deliver value for the American consumer.

Some people that I've spoken to about this space, including former Chairman Wheeler, have said that the agency would have had more options for dealing with and requiring broadband companies to make certain changes if ISPs were still classified as Title II common carriers. Do you agree? Do you think your authority is being limited by that policy change?

I recognize that this is a religious issue for some within the Beltway, but we have been focused on doing everything we can within our authority. And frankly, it doesn't matter whether it's Title II or Title I for these purposes. We had the pledges that have been made to Keep Americans Protected, as well as some of the other steps we've taken [that have] nothing whatsoever to do with the arcane question of regulatory classification that are Title II or Title I. It's simply the right thing to do for the agency, the right thing to do for the industry, and the right thing to do for the American consumer. And that's always been our focus and always will be our focus.

The pledges currently are set at 60 days. Do you expect that to be extended if the pandemic response continues longer than that?

We'll take a look at where we are within that certain time frame. Obviously, we're in uncharted waters. There's uncertainty about how the pandemic will proceed. And so we want to make sure that we're nimble enough to address the needs of the American consumer going forward. And I've been very gratified by many of the companies and trade associations that have either taken or endorsed the pledge, who said at the end of the day, their mission is to keep Americans connected, and they're willing to do whatever it takes. And I think that's an enduring promise that we want to make sure we can vindicate in the time to come, if need be.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins