FCC chairman Ajit Pai wants to bring a “light touch” to the way the agency enforces net neutrality rules. Even before stepping into the role of chairman in January, Pai was a vocal advocate for walking back some of the regulations implemented under the Obama administration. And now, speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, he just gave his strongest speech yet outlining his vision to take the FCC in a completely different direction.
Specifically, Pai wants the free market to take more control over regulating internet service providers. He points the finger at net neutrality rules for regulating growth in the broadband industry to the nation’s detriment.
“Two years later, it has become evident that the FCC made a mistake,” he said, referring to the rule’s implementation on February 26, 2015. “Our new approach injected tremendous uncertainty into the broadband market. And uncertainty is the enemy of growth.”
As evidence, Pai claimed the regulation drove investment into the U.S. broadband industry to historically low levels. But as the Consumerist points out, Pai used numbers provided by industry lobbyists to back up his claims. Numbers publicly provided by the internet companies themselves tell a completely different story of increasing stock value. And by all accounts, major internet service providers plan to continue investing in and expanding their networks in the future.
During his speech, Pai also argued that one recent move toward deregulation was already showing positive results for the market. The FCC recently decided to stop investigating zero-ratings plans where carriers let consumers stream certain content for free without counting toward data limits. Pai claimed this halt to meddling was the catalyst that sparked all four major U.S. carriers to offer unlimited data plans back in February.
But here, the argument falls short again. Zero-ratings plans have to do with specific content being free, not the makeup of the plan itself. The more likely reason why the carriers started giving out unlimited data last month was Verizon took notice that T-Mobile was chipping away at their customer base with generally more generous plans – including free data. So they jumped in with their own unlimited data plan – to which AT&T and Sprint both reacted by doing the same within the span of a week.
Pai’s speech fell just short of proclaiming plans to completely dismantle current net neutrality rules. But what’s clear is his intention to take the invisible hand of the market to sweep at least some of it away.
“Today, the torch at the FCC has been passed to a new generation, dedicated to renewal as well as change,” Pai said. “We are confident in the decades-long, cross-party consensus on light-touch Internet regulation — one that helped America’s digital economy thrive. And we are on track to returning to that successful approach.”
Unsurprisingly, this has net neutrality advocates on edge. No one is arguing against letting companies make some content free for the sake of competition. What keeps them up at night is that without regulation, nothing will stop internet providers from serving up their own content quickly while slowing down or even blocking content from the competition. This would hurt small businesses the most because, while powerhouses like Netflix could afford to pay a higher price to gain access to those higher speeds, start-ups simply wouldn’t be able to enter the market.
Internet service providers are probably jumping for joy at Pai’s words. But content providers like Netflix, Facebook, Google, and Amazon have all come out in favor of net neutrality. Even former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler expressed his discontent with Pai’s new direction, calling it a win for lobbyists over core principles during an interview with CNNTech.
“Conservatives used to be against letting big companies determine who gets on the broadcast airwaves, but now they are for allowing big companies to determine who gets on the Internet [and] on what terms,” Wheeler told CNNTech.