FCC chairman Ajit Pai addresses India’s digital future at USIBC's 'Ideas Summit’

FCC chairman Ajit Pai

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Among several breakout sessions at the U.S.-India Business Council’s India Ideas Summit on June 12-13, was one on ‘Strategies for Successful Digital Infrastructure Deployment,’ where the scene setter and lead panelist was the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission(FCC) Ajit Pai, who led off with a quip that “you’re barely three hours into this summit, and you’ve already heard from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Governors of Kentucky and New Jersey, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and NASDAQ CEO Adena Friedman.”

“Who do you have lined up for Day Two? Perhaps the Indian Avengers? Priyanka Chopra, Salman Khan, and Virat Kohli?,” he asked to chuckles from the audience.

Pai then went on to relate a story about the moderator Jim Taiclet’s company, American Tower Corporation, recalling, “Last October, I had the opportunity to attend the India Mobile Congress in New Delhi.  During this trip, I visited a dusty neighborhood outside New Delhi, where I checked out an American Tower cell site.  This cell site provides wireless coverage to thousands of people for whom a mobile phone is their only digital access to the outside world.  And the fiber that feeds the site is used for Internet kiosks for teaching math and reading to kids in impoverished areas.”

“As a person of South Asian descent, I can’t describe what it meant to see Indian kids eager for the opportunity to learn and improve their lives,” he said, and added, “To me, this site visit perfectly captures the value of the U.S.-India Business Council and the collaboration it promotes.  American Tower benefits from the opportunity to expand its business to a new market. And the people of India benefit from expanded access to modern communications.  Everyone is better off.”

Pai, who has ignited huge controversy over his decision to dismantle net neutrality and he and his family been threatened with death too and also raised the ire of Congressional Democrats like fellow Indian American Rep. Ro Khanna (D.-Calif.) who represents Silicon Valley, declared, “The chance to promote mutual growth and prosperity is why I’m excited to work with groups like the USIBC and my peers in India’s government.”

He said, “On my first international trip as Chairman of the FCC, I met with my Indian counterpart, the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, R.S. Sharma and we charted a plan for enhanced collaboration and signed a Letter of Intent for cooperation between the two agencies.”

“Since then, our two agencies have increased our cooperation, regularly exchanging information and sharing ideas on topics of mutual interest, like advancing broadband deployment and attacking robocalls.”  

Then delving into the the weeds to talk about how to deploy the physical infrastructure that makes this innovation possible, Pai highlighted the Indian government’s National Digital Communications Policy saying he would use it “as my guide.”

Released in September 2018, the strategy is organized around three central pillars-- Connect India, Propel India, and Secure India.

Pai said, “I think this is a useful way to think about our own work at the FCC.  I’ll talk about strategies we are pursuing to make sure everyone can access modern communications—connect; to unleash next-generation technologies—propel; and to guard against threats to our networks—secure.”

Starting with connect, he said, “In the U.S., we believe that a competitive free market is the most powerful force we have for driving network investment and that’s why the FCC has removed many regulatory barriers to lower costs and speed up the process of building broadband infrastructure.”  To make it easier to install wireless infrastructure like small cells, we set a reasonable deadline for cities to rule on siting applications and reasonable limits on siting fees.  We also eliminated federal red tape to make sure that infrastructure the size of a pizza box won’t face the same regulatory review as a 200-foot tower.”

“We’ve also modernized rules to make it easier for carriers to transition from maintaining yesterday’s copper networks to building tomorrow’s fiber networks.  And we scrapped utility-style broadband regulation inspired by rules from the 1930s.”

Pai argued that “there’s is plenty of evidence that our policies are working.  In 2018, fiber was deployed to more new homes in the United States than any year ever.  Small-cell deployment more than quadrupled. Average broadband speeds are up 40 percent year over year.  And just this week, we learned that investment in broadband networks was up about $3 billion in 2018, the second consecutive annual increase.  This is particularly notable since network investment fell in 2015 and 2016, the last two years of the prior Administration.”

But, he acknowledged, “Of course, despite the good news, millions of Americans still live in rural areas where there is currently no business case for the private sector alone to build broadband networks.  As is the case in parts of Assam, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka, we have communities in Alaska, Utah, and Kansas that don’t have access.”

Pai said, “Obviously, India’s connectivity challenges are significantly different in nature and scale,” than in the U.S. and lauded Prime Minister Modi and the Indian government “for their ambitious goals of universal Internet access by 2022 and fixed broadband access to 50 percent of households by 2022.  To meet these targets, they’re pursuing bold strategies such as installing two million public Wi-Fi hotspots in rural areas and redesigning and expanding the Universal Service Obligation Fund.”

With regard to propelling next-generation technologies, specifically 5G, he said besides speeding wireless infrastructure deployment as part of that is FCC’s 5G FAST plan, this technology “could be transformative, enabling things like telemedicine and precision agriculture, automotive safety and gaming, industrial IoT and other breakthroughs we can’t even conceive today.”  

Then getting on to what his agency is doing to make sure America’s communications networks are secure, Pai said, “One of our top priorities is to protect the security and integrity of the communications supply chain.  That’s why the FCC has proposed to prohibit the use of the broadband funding we administer to purchase equipment or services from any company that poses a national security threat to the integrity of United States communications networks or the communications supply chain.”

“That’s why the FCC denied the application of China Mobile USA, a wireless carrier ultimately owned by the Chinese government, to provide international telecommunications services in the United States,” he said.

Pai said, “When making decisions that impact 5G security, in particular, we need to remember that the implications are wide-ranging.  5G will affect our militaries, our industries, our critical infrastructure, and much more. The procurement and deployment decisions made now will have a generational impact on our security, economy, and society.”

“And the more that allies like the United States and India can work together and make security decisions based on shared principles, the safer that our 5G networks will be,” he said.

Thus Pai said that these “are just some of the strategies we are pursuing at the FCC to enable our citizens to benefit from the digital revolution,” and working “in the days ahead to connect, to propel, and to secure the digital future of the United States and India—two strong allies and two good friends.”

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