Episode 10

RDOF, COVID and the FCC

October 15, 2020

Episode Summary

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai discusses the state of rural broadband, the upcoming RDOF auction, the impact of COVID-19, and how rural broadband providers are improving the lives of their customers.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Stephen Smith: Thanks for tuning into another episode. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Chairman Pai was first appointed to the FCC in 2012 by then President Barack Obama. In 2017, President Donald Trump designated Pai as chairman of the FCC. We talk a lot about rural broadband in this interview, of course, but we touched on other topics in this wide-ranging conversation, topics that the chairman is particularly passionate about. And, of course, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is something we touched on as well and how that’s impacted his staff and his home. So without further ado, let’s listen to my conversation with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Stephen Smith: And thank you so much for joining us on Rural Broadband Today. Welcome to the podcast, Chairman Pai.

FCC Chairman Pai: Hey, great to be with you. Thanks for having me on.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. So we were talking before the tape rolls there that you were like so many Americans with the coronavirus situation. You’re sitting at home and having to do some remote work and juggle some assignments with schoolwork with the children. Tell us what’s going on in the Pai household.

FCC Chairman Pai: Yeah, it’s been managed chaos for a few months. We have been working from home and the kids have been studying at home for about six months now, including the past couple of weeks with the new school year, and it’s been a challenge. You know, it’s a tough job no matter when it is. And then on top of that, you’re trying to make sure the kids are focused on school and not fighting with each other or turning the video off and running off outside. It’s been a little bit of a scramble, but, you know, thank goodness for some of this technology, at least because I honestly don’t know how we could have done any of this 10-20 years ago. I guess that’s the silver lining is the stuff that we’ve been working on, and I know you are too, helps us get through times like this.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. How is the challenge been for your staff and, you know, getting the work of the FCC done under these circumstances?

FCC Chairman Pai: Yeah, I was pretty nervous, I will say, in mid-March. About March 12th or so, I remember sitting in my office realizing that the whole country was about to shift to telework and that included our office. And so we had to make sure that our IT team was able to meet the challenge that we communicate clearly with all the FCC staff. And I’ve got to say, they really stepped up to the plate. In fact, over the last six months, we’ve been just as productive — in some ways more productive — than we were when we were in headquarters. And part of that, I think, is the fact that we do have a pretty good IT system that keeps all of us together. And then a part of that is also that we really have a staff that cares about these issues and in particular, the pandemic related issues that we’ve dealt with; you know, setting up a telehealth program and granting waivers to allow companies to gain emergency access to spectrum to help people in hard hit areas. You know, our FCC staff, they’re Americans first, and they really care about their fellow citizens. And so they really put in the extra time and effort despite the circumstances. So while I certainly would prefer to see them in the hallways and you grab a coffee with them and pat them on the back for a job well done, I will say that it’s been an incredible experience being a coworker of theirs. So they deserve all the credit for the good stuff we’ve done over the last half year and throughout my tenure.

Stephen Smith: Well, I was very excited to get you on the show today, but you are such a visible FCC chairman. You are on so many interviews and webinars and, you know, I’m seeing you all over. And, you know, sometimes the public officials in your position or similar positions may not be as out there. You are even very active on Twitter, and you share a lot of good information and a lot of fun information. It’s a fun account to follow. What drives that? What makes you want to be so accessible?

FCC Chairman Pai: That’s a good question. So I think part of it is just who I am. I tend to be extroverted, optimistic, happy, and most of the time and I’ve always been that way growing up in rural Kansas. You know, that’s just the way everybody was, and so I guess that’s just part of my DNA. And then part of it is also making sure that people know what the FCC is: what work we do and who we are. And I specifically remember back in 2012 when I was a commissioner before I got this job thinking, “OK, how do we communicate what we’re doing to the American people?” I was actually the first commissioner on Twitter back in 2012, and I remember some of my colleagues at the time saying, “you’re crazy. What a waste of time this is.” But now all of them are on it, including much of the FCC staff even. And I think part of the reason is you’re able to communicate with so many other people who would never otherwise be able to come to the FCC’s headquarters, certainly would never hire a lawyer or lobbyist to follow what we’re doing. And it just helps people to understand our work. And for some of these issues that really touch a nerve — for example establishing 988 as a suicide prevention and mental health hotline or some of the other work we’ve done on rural broadband deployment — I think there are a lot of people out there who are really eager to learn about us, but just would never otherwise know. And for me personally, I will say that part of it is just making sure that people know I am responsive, that I’m not some ivory tower bureaucrat sitting there issuing dictates from up on high. I’m also a person who cares about what they’re concerned about and try to get feedback. And some of the feedback I’ve gotten over Twitter has actually enabled us to take action on things like no access codes for dialing 911 for multiple line telephone systems. I mean, that came from a tweet I got back in December 2013. So I know social media is a mixed bag, but for me it’s been a general plus.

Stephen Smith: Well, I know as part of your stated philosophy, good communication knows no partisan affiliation. I really like that. Really when you look at your tenure at the FCC, you were appointed originally by a Democrat president and then moved to the chairmanship by Republican president. I think that says a lot about the way that you approach policy and your philosophy.

FCC Chairman Pai: I certainly hope so. I mean, I’ve yet to hear anybody say when I travel around the country, “Yeah, don’t focus on rural broadband deployment. That’s a Republican or Democratic issue.” Or “thanks for increasing the amount of spectrum by 5X or Wi-Fi. That’s a Republican or Democratic issue.” Communications really has, as I said in my bio, no partisan affiliation. I think that’s part of the problem nowadays is that it is such a poisonous political environment because folks think everything has to be political. And I long for those days, if there ever were such days, I thought there were, but where we could have civil discourse and just leave the politics out of it and figure out what’s best for the country. And that’s what I try to do in this job to the best of my ability.

Stephen Smith: Well, the the focus, of course, going into 2020, I think we all thought we’re starting a new decade and this is the time to focus on new and exciting things, not having any idea of what we were headed toward. One of the things that the commission has done the Keep Americans Connected Pledge came out pretty early. How would you characterize the response that you’ve seen from the from the rural broadband providers? I mean, those folks are — their margins are lower, the density of their service areas are sometimes ridiculously low. And how would you characterize their response?

FCC Chairman Pai: I cannot say enough about how rural broadband providers stepped up at a moment of national need and really delivered value for the American people. And, you know, I think people might forget now that it’s been six months or so. But, you know, back in mid-March, we had 200 million people, something like that, that were moving to work-from-home environment. There’s a big question: how on earth are we going to sustain all of this increased traffic over the Internet? Part of it was the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. In mid-March, I initiated that pledge. I asked broadband and telephone providers of all sizes to pledge not to cut off service for consumers, either as individual consumers or small businesses, if they couldn’t pay a bill because of disruptions caused by the pandemic, that they’d waive any late charges, and that they’d open up the Wi-Fi hotspots. And we ultimately extended that pledge until the end of June and almost 800 companies took it — a huge number of rural broadband providers. And as you said, I mean, I can’t say enough about these folks. These are folks who struggle to keep the lights on in some cases. They are serving a population that’s sparse which tends to have lower incomes. The person who does the network installed might also be the customer service person. I mean, it’s not like they have a ton of personnel. But nonetheless, they signed this pledge, and they delivered. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve gone to Congress repeatedly and said, you know, these people, these rural broadband providers deserve credit, but they also deserve some assistance if we want to make sure that they’re able to continue doing some of these things so long as the pandemic goes on. So my hat’s off to the folks who really went above and beyond and helped their fellow man in their time of need. I know it sounds cheesy to say, but to me it really exemplifies what makes America so great is that at the end of the day, we care about our fellow citizens more than we care about ourselves in some cases.

Stephen Smith: It’s very true. Have you gotten a lot of feedback in your office from the rural providers in terms of the impact that that’s had on them or any concerns that they might have of the long lasting financial impact of keeping people connected?

FCC Chairman Pai: Yeah, yeah. I have heard anecdotally and a bit of aggregate data too, that for some of the carriers that took the pledge, there has been some bad debt accumulating. And it might seem to someone in Washington like not that much — you know $50,000 or $100,000 — but if you’re a small carrier, that’s a lot of bad debt to have on the books. And so in addition to that, obviously, their customer base is continuing to be impacted. So if you’re, for example, in part of the country where you say 10% or 20% of your customer base has lost a job, what does the future look like for you in terms of keeping them as a customer, getting revenue on the books? So that’s a challenge. And I think that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to think about going forward is there’s been a massive dislocation and that’s going to have trickle down effects to broadband providers, power company, all kinds of other folks who also are in the area involved by this. So it’s tough. I don’t envy the task of those folks that rural broadband companies that have to figure out a way to make P&L work, but they’re making it work so far, and I’m committed to helping them in any way I can.

Stephen Smith: Well, I’ve never been to Parsons, Kansas, but I think growing up there, you can tell us a little about it. That has given you a perspective, and you understand what these folks are dealing with, don’t you?

FCC Chairman Pai: Oh, definitely. Yeah, Parsons, for those listeners who don’t know, [is a] tiny town. When I was growing up, there was 11,514 people. [It’s] about three hours south of Kansas City, two hours southeast of Wichita, two hours north east of Tulsa — pretty far out there. And for me at least, I didn’t even realize it was such a small town because there are many smaller towns around there where my father would go. He was a physician, and so sometimes he would drive to some of these other towns where, otherwise, there was no doctor there at all for them to see. And I still remember growing up just being friends with one of the boys who was in my class. His dad was a farmer. We lived on a dirt road outside of town, so we actually didn’t even live in the town itself. So, you know, I very much remember what that was like. I remember getting the first McDonald’s and how excited people were in 1982, I think it was. I think, by and large, just the style of life there that, you know, people are good people. You know, they didn’t keep their doors locked, and people would wave at you when you passed them on the road. I mean, it was that kind of place. And even though my sister and I chaffed at it when we were a teenagers, like, “oh, gosh, why are we in this small town?” Looking back on it, it was one of the greatest life lessons I’ve ever had because you just learn to look someone in the eye and work with them cooperatively and be friends with them because, you know, it was a pretty small town. You knew everybody and everyone knew you, and you had no choice but to really see the best in people. And I don’t know that’s been — even now, I’ve lived in the big city for many, many years, I’d like to think I still retain that small town sense of camaraderie, and we’re all in it together that I had back then.

Stephen Smith: Right, it makes a difference in the upbringing, that’s for sure.

FCC Chairman Pai: Oh, my gosh. And that’s one of the things that I wish kids, you know, my own kids, who of course are growing up in a big city, I wish they could see too — that there’s something, not to get too far into a tangent, but also just being outdoors. I mean, my sister and I, we had a 10-acre pasture behind our house, and my sister and I would just spend hours out there exploring. Or my mom would drop us off at this big kind of forested park where we play for hours. And something about just being outside that helps kids, I think, adjust. And nowadays, when everyone’s indoors all the time and playing games and on the phone, I don’t know, there’s something I can’t put my finger on it exactly what it is, but there’s something that’s lost, I think, with people being indoors all the time, especially kids.

Stephen Smith: Well, we lose a connection to the natural world around us, I think, that could keep us grounded otherwise.

FCC Chairman Pai: Yeah, one of my favorite things to do with my kids since the pandemic has hit is we go on these walks around the neighborhood. And, you know, we’ll find cicadas or worms or beetles. And, you know, first my kids were horrified that I would just pick this stuff up and show them. Now they love it. They actually are picking stuff up on their own, investigating, creating scrapbooks, and it’s just great. I keep telling them there’s so much beauty in nature out there that you’re never focused on if you’re focused on your phone, your iPad, your TV, or whatever. You know, we’ve got to keep in mind that we’re just a very, very small part of this world. There’s a lot of other stuff out there that we should learn about and appreciate.

Stephen Smith: That’s well said. You’re absolutely right. Well, we have seen over the last well, I mean, you could go all the way back to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and start charting there some attention, great attention on rural broadband. And then certainly it seems like just the last few years we have seen a lot of momentum, a lot of states setting up some grant programs. And, of course, some additional resources coming from the federal government. Then when the pandemic hit, it seems like that pushed everything to the forefront and just really trained that spotlight on [the fact that] we have a real issue here, and we need to solve that. In your time at the FCC and in the communications industry in general, have you ever seen this much intent on solving this challenge that we have?

FCC Chairman Pai: I certainly don’t think so. From my first full day as Chairman, I made clear that this was going to be my top priority because I’ve seen in too many places that there are folks on the wrong side of that digital divide. And, you know, I know it might not be Republican orthodoxy to say it, but I do think the government has a very critical role to play. And when it comes to the FCC, that role involves primarily funding to make sure that we can help rural broadband providers find a business case for building these high quality networks that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

FCC Chairman Pai: And so we’ve really reformed the Universal Service Fund in some fundamental ways to make sure that we target those unserved areas [to] provide the subsidies that companies need to build these networks and [to] provide the accountability to make sure that the companies do what they say they’re going to do. And we’re starting to see all the fruits of that come together. You know, the  ReConnect Fund Phase 2 is a great example. $1.5 billion through a reverse auction. And I’ve now had the chance to see everywhere from Matheny, Wyoming, to Ada, Oklahoma, how some small companies that most people have never heard of, you’ll never see them on the front page of The New York Times or whatever, but they’re doing the hard work with this FCC funding to build broadband. And so we have even a bigger initiative coming up, as I’m sure you know, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which is $20 billion, $16 billion in the first phase. And to me, that’s it’s such a critical initiative because I think the pandemic has only underscored the fact that broadband is critical if you’re going to be a participant in daily life and especially in rural areas. I know some folks think “Oh, why do rural folks really need broadband? Is that important?” And they said, “Well, here, look, if you’re if you’re eating, but chances are that food on your table came from a rural area. For things like precision agriculture, you need to have broadband.” And just as in rural areas, they need telehealth and remote learning and all the rest. For things like precision ag, you’ve got to have a digital connection. So it’s a passion for me and will be so long as I draw breath at the agency.

Stephen Smith: Well, you mentioned the RDOF, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and let’s get into that. We are recording this interview toward the end of September and give us kind of a timeline of what’s going to be unfolding over the next few weeks.

FCC Chairman Pai: Yes, so this, as I said, a $20 billion initiative to get broadband to unserved parts of the country, and then later to unserved parts. So the RDOF $20 billion total Phase 1, which starts on October 29th, is a reverse auction of up to $16 billion dollars. And there we will target unserved areas — areas that we know are not covered with 25/3 megabits per second broadband. We have put a thumb on the scale in favor of faster speeds and lower latency. So if you’re coming up, if you’re bidding, for example, with a gigabit speed bid, you will get preference over somebody who’s bidding at the 25 megabits per second level. Similarly, it’s a reverse auction. So we open up to competition from any company using any technology so long as they are demonstrated to be able to meet the service thresholds. And so that is going to happen on October 29. There’s a lot of paperwork that our staff is processing right now in terms of applications that have been submitted to compete in that auction, and it will hopefully iron out any kinks. I know the staff is hard at work working with some of the broadband providers on those. And then once Phase 1 is over, any money that’s left over, plus the remaining $4 billion will go into Phase 2. And Phase 2 will focus on partially served areas — areas where one part of a census block might be covered, but another won’t be. And so it’s a really exciting initiative. And this is our biggest step yet to close the digital divide. It could cover up to 10.4 million Americans, and those are folks who have waited long enough in my view. We need to get them connected, and we should get them connected as soon as we can.

Stephen Smith: I noticed in the listing of the applicants, there were, I don’t know, maybe six pages of applicants with a complete application, but they were like 17 pages of incomplete applications. How does that work, and what is the strategy behind so many companies submitting an incomplete application?

FCC Chairman Pai: Yeah, in some cases, it might be something as small as, hey, you know, you left out your zip code on the application. You know, we need you to correct that. In some cases, it might be something more fundamental. You know, your company that uses this kind of technology, but you’re proposing to bid using a completely different technology — what’s going on there? And so what happens with those so-called incomplete applications is that our staff will go back and work with the entity that’s submitted it, and just try to figure out what’s going on. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, we do that. So the number of incomplete applications this time around, the percentage, is very comparable to what we got with the Connect America Fund Phase 2. So there too a lot of those incomplete applications ended up being resolved and a lot of those folks participated in the auction. So I’m confident here, too, that if you’re a rural broadband provider and the FCC has told you your application is incomplete, don’t fret. We’re willing and able to work with you just as we’ve worked with others. Our ultimate goal is to make sure that we get all that stuff squared away so you can participate in the auction. You know, we win when more people are competing in that auction to serve.

Stephen Smith: Okay. Our company works with a lot of rural broadband providers who are really all of them going the fiber to the home route because of the reliability and [it’s] future proof. And it’s something that’s going to be there for decades to come. But there are a lot of technologies besides fiber to the home, and I wonder if you have a feel yet for how diverse among those technologies we’re going to see in that auction. I mean, we’re reading things about, you know, Google balloons, Tesla satellites, and fixed wireless and just really a mixed bag of technology. How do you think that’s going to come down?

FCC Chairman Pai: It’s going to be really interesting. My position has always been one of technological neutrality — that is, so long as you are providing the service at the thresholds that you’re bidding at, the FCC shouldn’t exclude anyone or favor anyone. And although, as I said, we put a thumb on the scale in favor of faster speeds and lower latency, if whoever is able to do that with a better mousetrap, that’s fine with us. So, certainly we want to encourage a lot of fiber providers to compete. Fiber to the home, of course, is in many ways the gold standard, and I’ve had a chance to see that for myself out in the field. That, as you said, is high capacity, resilient, and future proof in many ways.

FCC Chairman Pai: But there are other companies using different technologies, too, that want to compete. Fixed wireless companies that you mentioned, some of the non-geostationary satellite orbit constellations claim that they have a technology that allows them to compete with relatively higher speeds and lower latency than satellite had in the past. We’re also seeing some electric utilities getting into the space, too. Of course, they have some of the utility poles and other infrastructure in place. And in recent years, they’ve been bidding in some of our auctions to be able to serve some of the harder to serve nooks and crannies of the country. So it’s going to be fascinating to see how it works. But my goal at the end of the day is, you know, as I said, whoever has the better mousetrap and can deliver value the cheapest for the American people at our service threshold, let’s let them have a fair chance to compete. So it’s going to be fascinating to see, and, you know, I don’t have any predictions as to how it comes out, except that I do believe that the consumer will ultimately win when the best providers for a particular area are the ones who are selected.

FCC Chairman Pai: And what I should have mentioned, by the way, the other thing for the fiber folks that you’re talking about, they should know that when the budget clears for a certain area, the highest speed bid, essentially the gigabit fiber bid in their case, would be the winner. So if that budget is cleared, then that’s a good thing for the fiber providers out there because they’ve got a pretty strong chance of winning in those areas.

Stephen Smith: Well, that’s a great point. You mentioned the nooks and crannies, I imagine that a lot of these areas, when you’re talking about the unserved area, I know that you are a big proponent of competition and the free market. And so many of these people who are unserved right now are probably unserved because there’s not one company that can get there, much less competition. So you’re probably going to see a lot of those areas, wouldn’t you think, that come in with just one bidder just because they’re so remote and hard to make money out of?

FCC Chairman Pai: Yeah, I would think so. I mean, as your question implies, they are unserved for a reason. You know, I’ve seen parts of the country with less than one square mile per person. I mean, I challenge anybody, Nobel Prize winning economist or top ranked CEOs, to figure out how to build a business case around that. That’s why I think the FCC’s RDOF and some of the other initiatives like that are so, so important. Those are still Americans. We still want them to be connected and have just as much of a chance to succeed as anyone else. And this is what is going to take, things like the RDOF, to make it happen.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. In the latest book from Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, The Future Is Faster Than You Think, they discuss the convergence of technologies and the impact that that’s going to have on the future on a lot of different sectors. But when they were talking about broadband and connectivity in general, they predict in this book, they make the statement that before the midpoint of the next decade, anyone who wants to be connected will be connected. And part of me was like, well, you guys haven’t seen some of rural America that I’ve seen. How optimistic are you that in the next 5 to 10 years we’re going to significantly shrink this digital divide?

FCC Chairman Pai: I think I’m pretty optimistic. If the RDOF executes as we hope it will and expect it will, and that’s up to 10 million people who get high quality broadband with a higher speed that’s favored, a future-proof speed. So, you know, that’s a big chunk out of the digital divide. There’s some 18 to 20 million Americans or so that are unconnected right now. And we want to make sure that we do everything we can to do that. And I do think that there are other technologies out there that maybe five years from now will become even more refined. You know, we talked about the satellite stuff. And satellite, my gosh, I mean, the strides they’ve taken since I first got into this field, it’s just been incredible. So if there’s a way to solve that problem using satellite, [that’s] great. The same thing with fixed wireless too. I mean, we put out a lot of the spectrum, especially in the six gigahertz band that fixed wireless companies can use. And if there’s a particularly challenging area where fiber deployment is just never going to happen, you know, if it’s mountainous or whatever — I’ve been to parts of Alaska that don’t even have roads into some of these towns. It’s just quicksand, essentially. Maybe fixed wireless has a part to play there, too. And some of the fixed wireless companies are able now to use these 160 or even 320 megahertz wide channels in the six gigahertz band to deliver gigabit speeds. So that might take off in a half a decade, too. And so, you know, I really share the optimism that those authors have. I haven’t read the book, but I certainly hope that their vision comes true. I like you — there’s some pretty rural off the beaten path parts of this country, so it’s going to take a lot of work by folks like you out there. But yeah, who knows? If Americans could do it with electrification in the 30s and 40s, then why can’t we do with broadband in the 21st century?

Stephen Smith: That’s exactly right. We have proven time and again when the collective will is there, we can accomplish great things as Americans.

FCC Chairman Pai: Absolutely. And, you know, again, it’s one of those things I think everybody agrees on. Whether you’re an Alabama or an Auburn fan, I think you would agree that the other team should be connected with broadband. If the Iron Bowl doesn’t stand in the way of people agreeing on the digital divide, then I don’t think anything should.

Stephen Smith: Well, all I can say to that is Roll Tide!

FCC Chairman Pai: Sorry for all you War Eagle listeners out there.

Stephen Smith: Of course this show is focused on rural broadband, but the FCC, there’s so many things that fall under your area of focus. And one thing in particular I noticed recently that you had signed a letter with NARUC’s President, Brandon Presley, on the inmate calling issue. There was some news, I think, just this past week on the three digit, the suicide hotline. Any of these other issues that you would like to touch on and talk about the things that are particularly interesting to you, even though they’re a bit overshadowed by everything that’s happening right now?

FCC Chairman Pai: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that I really have enjoyed working on, just as a personal passion of mine has been 988. Suicide prevention is a critical issue. Suicide rates in the U.S. are now reaching levels that we haven’t seen since World War II. And, especially with the pandemic, what we’ve seen is a spike in the need for people seeking and getting the mental health services they need. And so one of the things that Congress urged us to do a couple of years ago was to think about is there a better way to connect people who need help with the people who can provide it? And right now, there’s a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is 1-800-273-TALK or 273-8255. You can imagine if you’re struggling late at night and you’ve got thoughts of suicide, it’s hard to remember that long phone number. So what we did last year was to propose 988 as the number. A three digit number that anybody could call to get connected with that suicide prevention lifeline directly. And I think it has a lot of advantages. 988 isn’t really used all that much right now. There are 87 area codes where it’s the prefix, but we think we can deal with that. Additionally, it has an echo of 911 one. So people would tend to remember it over time. And additionally, we got tons of support from mental health advocates, from the Veterans Affairs Department, you name it. Everyone came out of the woodwork to support it. So we finally adopted it earlier this summer. And the implementation date is July 2022, because it will take time in these rural areas where there are those prefixes that used 988 for them to migrate off of it. But I think once it takes effect, it’s going to be transformative. And I know the politicians always say it and I hate hearing it when it’s just a political slogan, but this really will save lives. And there are people out there dying today that we hope will be able to get the help they need. And I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done on this. It’s been a slog trying to find out the perfect number or the right number, and I think we’ve found it here. 

FCC Chairman Pai: That’s just one of the many initiatives. You mentioned, intimate calling too. You know, folks who are incarcerated in jails and prisons sometimes have to pay exorbitant rates. And one of the things that we’ve done is to spearhead an initiative with our counterpart at the state regulatory level, NARUC as it’s called, a National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, to talk about the intrastate rates that might be too high. The FCC doesn’t have authority there, but we do think that state governments do. And so working with our state regulatory counterparts, we hope to attack that issue. And as you said, this is an issue that easily falls through the cracks. Nobody really thinks about it all the time, but it’s an important issue nonetheless.

FCC Chairman Pai: And the last one, I’ll tackle is contraband cell phones. These are contraband cell phones that make their way into prisons. And this is an issue that I flagged a couple of years ago when I was a commissioner. It’s a real public safety menace. Violent inmates who get these phones that can target prosecutors, witnesses, threaten family members of witnesses. They run scams from inside prisons. And I’ve been to now several correctional facilities, voluntarily I would add, from Oklahoma to Massachusetts to Georgia and many more, and they’ve told me that contraband cell phones in prison are much more valuable than cigarettes, than drugs, or even money. And so that’s one of the things that we’ve been working on, is trying to get the wireless industry, correctional officials, and others to take action on this issue.

Stephen Smith: That is a problem I did not know existed.

FCC Chairman Pai: I mean, there are stories out there that would curl your blood. I remember meeting a guy, he was a he was a correctional official in South Carolina, and one night he heard an intruder in his house. The intruder shot him six times. It turns out that this guy was too good at his job. His job was to get rid of contraband that was found at, I believe it was Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina. And so one of the inmates got sick of it, called it, put out a hit on a contraband cell phone. And this happened. And luckily, this man survived. I ended up meeting him, and he came up to Washington, D.C. when we introduced this initiative a few years ago. But he said, I [inaudible] 100%, this is a major public safety issue. That, you know, if you think about what it means for prosecutors and witnesses and any random person, it’s a serious threat. So we’re taking this seriously, and I hope that others do too.

Stephen Smith: Well, Chairman, this is certainly a season of reflection for a lot of people, and as we are moving quickly toward the end of the holiday season the end of 2020 — a 2020 that we did not anticipate — looking at your tenure at the FCC and thinking about all the challenges that you’ve tackled and in particular with rural broadband and the progress that you’ve seen and the progress that you hope to accomplish in your continued work there, what would you hope your legacy would be when you’re sitting on your front porch with the grandkids and the rocking chair and you’re looking back on your career, what do you hope that legacy to look like?

FCC Chairman Pai: That’s a good question. It’s funny because we’re always sprinting so fast in these jobs that we never take the chance to stop and just kind of think about where we are and where we’re going. But I guess if I had to forecast, you know, years in the future, once I’ve left this position behind, I hope it would be said of our time that we did everything we could to make the agency more responsive to the needs of the American people, to deliver on national priorities like rural broadband and 5G and consumer protection, and that in word and in deed, we really tried to represent the entire country. And that includes me personally, visiting 49 states and the territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. So far as I know, the first chairman in history ever to do that. The pandemic kept me from hitting Alaska so far, but to me that it was important to me to get out in the field, both to show people that we cared, but also to learn about all of the unique circumstances. And, you know, whenever I wake up in the morning and log on to my computer, those are the stories that linger with me. You know, the rural tribal members at the Wind River Reservation who told me about how funding was enabling them to get gigabit fiber to the tribal school. Or the folks I met in the Gulf in Mississippi who talked to me about how important wireless infrastructure was for some of the problems they had. Or, you know, the telehealth visit I did in Salt Lake City to the VA mental health telehub that, you know, veterans were literally saving years of their lives because they were able to get telehealth. I mean, those are the kinds of things that I wouldn’t have known had I not traveled. And so I hope that be one part of the legacy will be that we inspired future FCC commissioners and FCC chairs to get out there and be amongst the people they are purporting to serve. And maybe that he wasn’t bad on Twitter too. That might be the icing on the cake — @AjitPaiFCC was something worth following for a while. 

Stephen Smith: That it is. That it is. Check him out on Twitter listeners. Well said.

Stephen Smith: Well, thank you so much again for joining us today. Again, my guest has been Chairman Ajit Pai, who is the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. And thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith. The program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. Please be sure to share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thanks for listening.

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