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FCC Chairman and His Predecessor Set the Stage for Another Battle Over Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is no fan of the agency’s current approach to net neutrality, and on Tuesday, he made it clear that loosening the current regulations is on his agenda.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Pai said that it has become “evident that the FCC made a mistake” in its passage of net neutrality rules in 2015, in which the agency reclassified internet service as a common carrier. Pai, along with other critics of the move, consider the approach “last-century, utility-style regulation to today’s broadband networks.”

“Our new approach injected tremendous uncertainty into the broadband market. And uncertainty is the enemy of growth,” Pai said at the event. “After the FCC embraced utility-style regulation, the United States experienced the first-ever decline in broadband investment outside of a recession.”

He said that the agency was now “on track” to return to what he called “light touch” regulation.

Pai has not said how he will pursue a revise or repeal of the rules. In his speech, he said that they “recognize that government does have a role to play when it comes to broadband.”

“So our approach will be not zero regulation, but light-touch regulation — rules backed by long-standing principles of competition law,” he said.

Pai, however, will likely face opposition to any effort to repeal or weaken the rules, as Democrats on Capitol Hill already have held a press conference to warn of such a move and public interest groups have been mobilizing for a new battle for the open internet. And Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler, already is showing a willingness to speak out against such an action.

After ending his tenure on Jan. 20 and taking a vacation in Cabo San Lucas with his wife, Wheeler has been vocal in criticizing the FCC’s new direction when it comes to the internet. He, too, was at the Barcelona conference, and told Bloomberg on Tuesday that “it is highly dangerous to let four companies, which is basically what we have in the United States, four internet service providers, to determine who will be able to get on their networks.”

“We can’t be in a situation where someone who owns the pipes determines what is going on, what’s going over those pipes,” he said.

The net neutrality debate has stretched on for more than a decade. The FCC is on its third approach to rules of the road for the internet. Now we may be in for another battle — and this may be the most contentious yet.

Update: Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, says that Pai is wrong in claiming that the 2015 rules have depressed broadband investment.

“Pai’s frequent charge that investment has declined is based on the claims made by one industry-paid analyst, who selectively edits the figures reported by some of these companies. But if you take account of the industry’s spending as a whole, you’ll see that broadband-industry investment was nearly 9 percent higher in the two years following the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order than it was in the two years prior.

“What’s more, these industry aggregate totals don’t tell the whole story. Individual companies large and small significantly increased their broadband-infrastructure investments following the rules’ adoption. Comcast, the nation’s largest ISP, has invested far more in the two years following the FCC’s order as the company has rolled out the next generation of cable-modem service. Smaller providers like Cincinnati Bell have increased their investments in fiber-to-the-home technology. And all wireless carriers have invested in completing their 4G deployments and preparing for 5G.”

The whole issue of broadband investment is something that has been a source of dispute among FCC commissioners. Then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and Pai, then a commissioner, fought over competing claims at a congressional hearing in March.

 

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