Ajit Pai Nominated as Commissioner to FCC

Ajit Varadaraj Pai nominated to serve on the Federal Communications Commission.

Indian American attorney Ajit Varadaraj Pai was nominated Oct. 31 by President Barack Obama to serve as a commissioner to the Federal Communications Commission.

The position requires Senate confirmation, though a date for the hearings has not yet been set.

“I’m very grateful to the president for nominating me to this position,” Pai told India-West in a telephone interview from the Washington, D.C. office of Jenner & Block, where he is a partner. “If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed, I will do my best to serve my country well,” he said.

Pai previously served as deputy general counsel at the FCC from 2007 to 2011, and noted that the Commission was “a terrific place to work.”

“I just really love the telecom industry, which cuts across so many sectors,” said Pai, noting the dynamism of the industry. The FCC “must facilitate innovation but abide by regulations,” he stated.

Three days after Obama announced Pai’s nomination - along with Jessica Rosenworcel, who has also been tapped to serve as FCC commissioner – Sen. Charles Grassley, R.-Iowa, announced that he would block Pai and Rosenworcel’s nominations until the FCC responded to his queries about LightSquared, a new wireless service provider which received conditional approval from the FCC in January to operate on airwaves formerly reserved mainly for use by Global Positioning System satellites. 

Makers of GPS devices have subsequently expressed concern that LightSquared’s usage of this band of spectrum could overpower GPS signals in the U.S. and interfere with airplanes, police cars and consumer GPS systems.

Grassley sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve all White House nominations before they are sent to the full Senate for confirmation.

LightSquared has promised investors to deliver a network that can be used by 100 million users by the end of 2012. 

Grassley, who has served in the Senate since 1980 and describes himself as a “government watchdog,” wrote to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in April asking the FCC to release copies of communications between the commission and LightSquared employees or its backer Philip Falcone, senior managing director of Harbinger Capital Investments, which has invested more than $2.9 billion into the company.

Some GOP members of Congress have accused the FCC of favoritism, noting Falcone’s large donations to the Democratic Party. Falcone has donated to candidates of both parties and is a registered Republican, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The FCC in July refused to release such documents, noting that Grassley was not the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC. 

In a Sept. 8 letter to Genachowski, Grassley expressed his disappointment with the FCC.

“It is unprofessional, unreasonable and downright odd for the FCC to demand compulsory process before providing what it would be obligated to produce under (the Freedom of Information Act) and what it should produce for the sake of transparency and accountability,” stated Grassley in his letter.

In a statement to the Senate Record Nov. 3, Grassley stated that he intended to object to proceeding with the nominations of Pai and Rosenworcel “because the FCC continues to stonewall a document request I submitted over six months ago.”

“The FCC has made it clear that it will not voluntarily turn over documents. I strongly believe it is critical for Congress to have access to documents in order to conduct vigorous and independent oversight,” stated Grassley, adding that he would be forced to take future steps until the administration increased its transparency about LightSquared’s conditional approval.

Speaking at the Open Mobile Summit Nov. 2 in San Francisco (see separate story this issue), LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja said, "For decades, the history of (the mobile) industry is one where we've dealt with (network) interference, and we’ve dealt with it through innovation, not politics," he said. “This is my first experience dealing with interference with politics.”

Pai, who is a registered Republican, told India-West he could not comment on Grassley’s block on his nomination. 

The 38-year-old Buffalo, New York-born Pai, who grew up in Kansas, is the son of two doctors, Varadaraj Pai, a urologist from Secunderabad, and Radha Pai, an anesthesiologist from Bangalore. 

Pai is married to Janine Ann Van Lancker, an assistant professor of medicine at George Washington University. His sister Sheila is a teacher in Philadelphia.

Pai graduated from Harvard in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in social studies. He then earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where he edited the Law Review. 

Pai began his career as a trial attorney with the Telecommunications Task Force of the Justice Departments Antitrust Division. He then moved on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he initially served as deputy chief counsel to the subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, and later as chief counsel to the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights.

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