FCC Doesn't Expect to Review AT&T's Time Warner Deal, Chairman Reiterates

bhijit Bhatlekar/Mint via Getty Images
Ajit Pai

"My role is not to read the headlines and try to make a determination based on who has said what" but is "based on the facts of the law," Ajit Pai said in Barcelona, emphasizing the regulator's political independence.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday reiterated his expectation that the U.S. regulator would not review AT&T’s planned $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner and underlined its political independence.

Pai appeared at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, giving a brief speech, followed by a panel discussion.

Asked to confirm that it was his view that there was no current reason for the FCC to review the mega-deal, he said: “That’s correct.”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Pai had said he understood that the companies have structured the deal so that no airwave licenses would be transferred, which is what typically triggers FCC reviews. "That is the regulatory hook for FCC review,” he said. “My understanding is that the deal won’t be presented to the commission.” The two companies have also said they don't expect an FCC review of their transaction.

Last week, Time Warner disclosed in a regulatory filing that it has agreed to sell its Atlanta TV station to Meredith Corp. for $70 million. A transfer of that station to AT&T could have prompted an FCC review. 

Other Time Warner FCC licenses cover the likes of satellite uplinks, but both AT&T and Time Warner have said they don’t expect those to be transferred to AT&T in the deal due to technological advances. 

The Justice Department must definitely review the planned mega-deal. AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson previously said about that review: "With regard to a vertical integration transaction like this…the history is pretty clear. In our industry, there is nothing that we can find on record with the [Department of Justice] ever denying one of these mergers. And quite frankly there is good reason for that, because it brings consumer choice, it brings innovation, and it will benefit consumers. So from that perspective, we are optimistic, we look forward to working through the process.”

Pai described his approach to the FCC's work as one of "regulatory humility.” He said the agency's job was to allow the private sector to run its businesses, remove any regulatory uncertainty, "incentivize these massive investments in networks that are going to benefit consumers" and protect consumers. 

How does politics play into the FCC's decision making, and does it put more pressure on him? “I take a very boring, humble view of my role as a regulator,” he said, emphasizing the FCC was an "independent agency" that makes decisions based on "well-established laws and precedents." He said: "That is how I view my role."

Asked how a regulator can stay independent in the face of comments from President Trump, who appointed him, or his critics, Pai laughed and said, to laughs from the audience: “It’s wonderful to be in Barcelona.” Trump during the presidential election campaign had said that his administration would not allow the combination.

Pai on Tuesday continued by saying his role was separate from political debate. "These are political...issues that, as we say in the United States, are above my pay grade," he said. "My role is not to read the headlines and try to make a determination based on who has said what in what forum. It is the very limited role of looking at the papers that are in front me and rendering a decision based on the facts of the law, because once I stray from that mission, I become nothing more than a political actor as well."

Concluded Pai: “I take my role seriously as defending the public interest and not the particular private interest of any company or person.”