Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai took the stage at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Tuesday, where he laid out his vision for the future of the internet —one that will seemingly not include the protections of net neutrality.
Pai told the crowd that he was there to “listen more than talk,” but spoke openly about his approach to broadband and internet growth while deriding the way the commission he heads handled the internet under President Barack Obama.
“Our new approach injected tremendous uncertainty into the broadband market,” Pai said during his speech, referring to the net neutrality protections passed by the FCC led by Chairman Tom Wheeler. “And uncertainty is the enemy of growth.”
Pai spoke on the Title II protections passed in the United States in 2015—the rules which reclassified the internet as a common carrier and protected against speed throttling, paid prioritization of data, and content blocking—and called the approach “a mistake.”
According to Pai, the Obama administration used “rules developed to tame a 1930s monopoly” for a 21st century technology. He stated his belief that a “light touch regulation” will better serve the web going forward.
“We are not living in a digital dystopia,” he said, arguing that many of the regulatory decisions made by former Chairman Wheeler were aiming to solve problems that didn’t exist.
He also suggested net neutrality rules have had a negative effect on broadband access as a whole in the U.S., arguing, “last year the United States experienced the first decline in broadband investment outside of a recession.”
Pai also noted investment will be important as carriers move toward 5G networks. “5G could transform the wireless world,” Pai said. “We stand on the cusp of new advancements, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll achieve this potential. 5G will require a lot of infrastructure.”
It’s not entirely clear net neutrality has harmed or slowed investment in mobile and broadband networks by internet service providers. In the nearly two years the internet has been regulated under Title II devices, there has been a 22 percent increase in broadband connectivity, according to an FCC report.
Internet service providers spoke about aggressively expanding their networks in earnings calls with investors in 2016 despite operating under regulatory protections of Title II. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile have all already committed to building out their 5G infrastructure in the coming years.
Pai also argued that his “light touch” approach–including deciding to no longer pursue action against zero rating practices that exclude certain data from counting against data caps—is the reason why mobile carriers are now offering unlimited plans.
“The truth is that consumers like getting something for free,” Pai said. “Pre-emptive regulation did not deliver those benefits, the free market did.”
The causation of this is also unclear, as none of the unlimited data plans offered by the four biggest carriers in the U.S. make use of zero rating practices. It’s likely the carriers are competing with one another because there are still other major carriers to compete with—something that may not be true if the FCC didn’t actively block attempted mergers between the companies.
It has been a little over one month since Pai took over the chairman position at the FCC, and he has spent much of that time undoing the regulations put in place by the previous administration. From all indications of his speech at MWC, it appears he intends to continue what he’s started.
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