Senate confirms FCC chairman to new five-year term

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai for another five-year term on the telecommunications regulatory panel where he faces decisions over dismantling Obama-era internet protections and a major television station merger.

Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies before a Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Pai won confirmation by 52-41 over objections from Democrats, who criticized him for moving to deregulate U.S. telecommunications rules. Republicans praised him for taking steps to boost rural internet service.

The former Justice Department, FCC and Capitol Hill staffer has been moving swiftly to undo many of the regulations adopted by the FCC during the Obama administration since assuming the chairmanship and vowed in December to take a “weed whacker” to unneeded rules.

Pai pledged in a statement on Monday to continue to focus “on bridging the digital divide, promoting innovation, protecting consumers and public safety, and making the FCC more open and transparent.”

He joined the FCC as a commissioner in March 2012 and was elevated to chairman by President Donald Trump in January.

In April, Pai proposed overturning the 2015 net neutrality rules, with a final vote expected later this year.

Pai “has established a clear record of favoring big corporations at the expense of consumers, innovators, and small businesses,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said.

The rules, which the FCC put in place under Democratic President Barack Obama, prohibit broadband providers from giving or selling access to a speedier internet - essentially a “fast lane.”

Senator John Thune, a Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, praised Pai’s proposal to withdraw the Obama internet rules and “rebalance its regulatory posture.”

The rules reclassified internet service providers much like utilities. They were favored by web companies like Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc and others, which said they would guarantee equal access to the internet.

Internet providers such as AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Comcast Corp argue the net neutrality rules make investment in additional capacity less likely and could lead to rate regulation.

In April, the FCC voted 2-1 for Pai’s proposal to reverse a 2016 decision that limits the number of television stations some broadcasters can buy.

That cleared the way for Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co. Senator Elizabeth Warren on Monday criticized Pai for “working for the most powerful communications corporations” and making it easier for the Sinclair deal to proceed.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney