As Ajit Pai took the stage for a speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this morning, CNBC anchor Karen Tso noted that the newly appointed FCC Chairman’s top priority has been the dismantling of net neutrality, a cause, she added, that would likely make him popular with many in attendance at the world’s largest mobile show.
Pai started his talk rather humbly, telling the crowd that he had flown to Europe in to “listen more than talk,” but quickly switch gears to defend his controversial moves over his first five weeks in his new role. He cited the growth of online business in his decision to deregulate the internet, noting how technology has, “enabled the democratization of the internet,” a trend that is only likely to continue as access to broadband and emerging technologies like 5G become more universal.
“5G could transform the wireless world,” Pai told the crowd. “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.”
Predictably, Pai sees net neutrality as a major roadblock toward achieving wider deployment, comparing regulations implemented during the Obama administration to “1930s-style regulation.” In his words, the decision has disincentivized broadband providers from investing in infrastructure for current technology and the ground necessary for a quicker roll out.
His answer, naturally, is what he calls “light touch regulation,” or more or less letting the free market shake everything out. “We are not living in a digital dystopia,” he explained, questioning the motives behind the push toward net neutrality in recent years. “Last year the United States experienced the first decline in broadband investment outside of a recession.”
MWC may have been a reasonably friendly ground for Pai’s business-first ideas, but the chairman’s aggressive stance against net neutrality has faced staunch criticism since his first days in office, no better epitomized than in a letter issued by US Senator Al Franken, who urged him to, “protect Americans’ access to diverse information sources and to ensure that the internet remains a tool for American innovation, economic growth, and public discourse.”
Pai has stood firm in his convictions. Early this month he dropped all of the commission’s investigations into zero-rating, wherein mobile carriers don’t count media streaming toward monthly data consumption – a policy that has raised concern among net neutrality defenders, for giving an uneven playing field to selected services.
During a sit down with Tso, European Commission VP Andrus Ansip, Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries and Orange CEO Stephane Richard following his speech, Pai cited the move as an attempt to limit the present climate of uncertainty in the wake of massively polarizing global outcomes like Brexit and the election of his boss, Donald Trump. The commissioner noted that all four major US carriers introduced new unlimited data plans quickly after he swept into the role with the decision.
“The truth is that consumers like getting something for free,” Pai said, sidestepping the question of fairness pertaining to corporate prioritization in a world with net neutrality. “Pre-emptive regulation did not deliver those benefits,” he told the crowd. “The free market did.”