Pai Takes Gentle Aim at Industry

Chairman keeps it low-key and generally self-deprecating
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FCC chair Ajit Pai was not exactly a wallflower at the annual telecom prom Thursday night (Dec. 6), but his humor tends toward the generally gentle and self-deprecating, including the obligatory shots at various industry players.

FCC chair Ajit Pai

Pai was speaking at the annual FCC Chairman's Dinner. It is sponsored by the Federal Communications Bar Association and raises money for the FCBA Foundation, which supports communications related and educational projects, including scholarships and work stipends.

The dinner is historically a chance for the FCC chairmen to do their best impression of a stand-up comic, to varying degrees of success.

Between the jokes about Philadelphia fans--the worst--the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes--the best--and a closing video of Pai and various FCC staffers and industry figures singing "I Don't Want a Lot for Christmas" in a send-up of
"Carpool Karaoke," there were those fairly gentle jibes at industry, including edge providers, which have been getting a lot of grief in D.C. lately.

"AT&T is now offering to settle the Justice Department's AT&T-Time Warner appeal through a winner-take-all, pay-per-view golf match between Randall Stephenson and Makan Delrahim. I'm not sure about some of the rules they proposed to be honest with you. Allowing Jim Acosta to shout at Makan during his backswing doesn't quite seem fair."--FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at 'Telecom Prom'

Pai said he had heard Amazon had not bought a table this year because the FCBA refused to come up with the $600 million in subsidies--a reference to the fact that it is locating its new headquarters just outside D.C. in Arlington, Va.

"Facebook is here, somewhere," he said. "Remember the original motto 'move fast, break things.' Been there, done that."

He said things had been "rocky" for Google, too. "Allegations of privacy violations, questions about the company's refusal to compete for federal contracts, uncertainty over antitrust liability. But I choose to look on the bright side: Their most recent search innovation will insure that nobody in China will know about any of it.

"Microsoft is here as well," he said. "Last week Microsoft passed Apple to be the most valuable company in the world. But capitalism is cruel. Even approaching one trillion dollars in market cap, they still can't afford to buy spectrum."

The line drew one of the night's biggest laughs, particularly from the National Association of Broadcasters tables. NAB has been saying for years that Microsoft could have bought spectrum in the incentive auction rather than push for unlicensed spectrum in the "white spaces" between and around TV channels repacked after that auction.

Pai also pointed to the President's tweet about the American Cable Association--spotlighting ACA's concerns about the Comcast-NBCU deal conditions expiring. Pai said ACA execs were, as far as he knew, the only folks in the room to be mentioned positively in a tweet by the President. "Matt, Ross, if you would pass me a few tips, I would be grateful," he said, a reference to ACA president Matt Polka and Ross Lieberman, senior VP of government affairs.

The evening would not have been complete without some joke about the FCC's net neutrality deregulation order, which took effect in June and which activists have said will be the ruin of the 'net. "The number one move in America at the moment is 'Ralph Breaks the Internet,'" Pai said, "or as I prefer to call it: 'Ralph Restores Internet Freedom.'"

AT&T was in the room and Pai included a topical joke related to Thursday's oral argument in the Justice Department's challenge to the Time Warner merger.

"AT&T is here, following on the heels of its Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson golf match last month," he said. "AT&T is now offering to settle the Justice Department's AT&T-Time Warner appeal through a winner-take-all, pay-per-view golf match between Randall Stephenson and Makan Delrahim. I'm not sure about some of the rules they proposed to be honest with you. Allowing [CNN White House correspondent] Jim Acosta to shout at Makan during his backswing doesn't quite seem fair."

Citing the erroneous missile warning that had Hawaiians ducking and covering at the beginning of the year, Pai pondered what the people in the room would do "if we all received a warning that a missile would strike us in 30 minutes."

He said net neutrality activist Fight for the Future would "immediately start organizing a net neutrality '25 minutes of action.' CTIA would issue a press release lamenting the impact the missile strike would have on U.S. leadership in 5G. NAB would ask the FCC to extend the 39-month repack deadline before Washington is destroyed." Then there would be those demanding an Inspector General investigation into whether the he had anything to do with the strike," he added.

Pai pointed out that commissioner Michael O'Rielly was leading the FCC's review of its kidvid rules. He said children's programmers are rolling out some new shows to curry favor with the commissioner: Milton Friedman's Neighborhood, Inspector Gadget Investigates Pirate Radio Operators, and Pai's favorite, "a Schoolhouse Rock episode about federal preemption."

Pai's opening act was a dinner menu that had the audience in a receptive mood. It included creamy ancho and leak soup, filet mignon, seared scallops and, for the second year in a row, a warm chocolate espresso soufflé, a welcome repeat performance.

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