BARCELONA – The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Varadaraj Pai, virtually claimed the copyright on the term “light-touch regulation” here at the Mobile World Congress (MWC), guaranteeing that he will strive to roll back “net neutrality” restrictions on Internet service providers (ISP) that had been fostered by previous FCC chief Tom Wheeler.
Pai also made it clear that he has no objection to consolidation among large telecommunications corporations, a signal that AT&T’s long-delayed absorption of fellow service provider giant Time-Warner will get a green light as soon as possible.
Pai was part of an MWC panel of heavyweights that included Andris Ansip, vice president in charge of the European Commission’s Single Digital Market initiative, Stephane Richard, chairman and CEO of Orange Group, France’s telecom goliath, and Mike Fries, president and CEO of Liberty Global, a Europe-based multinational telecommunications company.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (left) with Stephane Richard, chairman and CEO of Orange Group, on the MWC panel (Photo: David Benjamin)
Despite protestations that, in his new role, he’s but a humble servant of the people, FCC Chairman Pai issued a clear battle cry against the regulatory policies of the Obama administration. Citing his fondness for a “light-touch approach to regulation,” Pai inveighed against the FCC’s 3-2 decision in 2015 to apply Title II of the 1934 Communications Act to ISPs, treating them as “common carriers.”
He praised legislation passed during the presidency of Bill Clinton that “set the Internet free from heavy-handed government regulation. They let market forces guide their decisions. They chose not to apply outdated rules crafted in the 1930s.”
Pai was referring to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed providers to offer “commercially reasonable” Internet services. By comparison, Title II of the more comprehensive Communications Act of 1934 requires “common carriers” of common services like radio and – eventually – television to act, as judged by FCC review, in a “just and reasonable” manner “in the public interest.”
At the time that the FCC voted to extend these Title II rules to the Internet, then Chairman Wheeler defined the 1996 law’s “commercially reasonable” standard as “reasonable for the network provider rather than what’s reasonable for the consumer and the innovator. If that’s the test, it’s the wrong question and the wrong answer.”
In his comments then, Wheeler defined “net neutrality” bluntly as “no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization.”
An indication of the swift reversal of FCC policies by the new chairman was Pai’s announcement of the end of an investigation into “zero-rating” or free-data services. These products, such as T-Mobile’s “Binge” and AT&T’s “Sponsored Data and Data Perks,” allow users to stream music and video without that use counting toward a data-plan limit. Net neutrality advocates regard zero-rating as a back door that allows the ISPs to gain preference on the Internet versus competitors who can’t afford to offer such “loss leader” promotions. It opens the door, critics say, to “paid prioritization.”
Pai dismissed these concerns, telling the MWC audience that “the private sector is better able to calibrate the use” of the Internet.
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