Chairman Pai announces he will leave FCC on January 20

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
Ajit Pai was named chairman of the FCC in 2017.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced he plans to leave the FCC on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021, allowing the Biden administration to appoint a Democratic majority.

Pai’s term doesn’t end until 2022, but there’s a longstanding tradition that the chair steps down when a new party enters the White House.

Pai was first appointed to the commission in 2012 under the Obama administration and was named chairman by President Trump in 2017. Pai said he considered it a particular privilege to be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC.

“I also deeply appreciate the chance to have worked alongside the FCC’s talented staff,” Pai said in his statement. “They are the agency’s best assets, and they have performed heroically, especially during the pandemic… This FCC has not shied away from making tough choices. As a result, our nation’s communications networks are now faster, stronger, and more widely deployed than ever before.”

Fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly is due to step down after his renomination was pulled by Trump, who then nominated Nathan Simington to fill O’Rielly’s seat. It’s not certain whether Simington will make it to the commission. His nomination is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during an executive session on Wednesday, December 2.

Pai’s legacy

The highest profile event that Pai oversaw was the repeal of Obama’s net neutrality rules in 2017. More recently, Section 230 of the Communications Act is probably the most controversial matter before the commission as it pertains to social media and Trump’s not wanting labels on his tweets.

Pai in October announced his intent to move forward with a rulemaking to clarify the meaning of Section 230, a move that could be interpreted as kicking it down the road. During a Senate hearing earlier this month, many of the questions for Simington were about Section 230.  

Pai gets credit for overseeing the start of five spectrum auctions and two rural broadband reverse auctions and for opening 1,245 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for unlicensed use. The C-band auction of mid-band spectrum for licensed use starts on December 8.

RELATED: Former Commissioner Clyburn named to Biden FCC transition team

It’s unknown who will be chair under Biden’s administration. The current Democrats on the commission are Jessica Rosenworcel, who joined the commission in 2012, and Geoffrey Starks, who joined in 2019.

Biden’s FCC Review Team includes former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. The team is led by John Williams, who previously served as senior counsel and senior agency official for privacy at the FCC.

Other members of the team are Edward “Smitty” Smith II, a former aide to Chairman Tom Wheeler who currently is a managing partner of the Washington, D.C., law firm DLA Piper, and Paul de Sa, a former FCC staff member who works with Quadra Partners, a telecom consulting firm.