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Trump's FCC chief looks to expand broadband internet access

FCC Chairmain Ajit Pai at the American Enterprise Institute.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks at the American Enterprise Institute. (image: Rob Pegoraro)

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai sounded like a different person while speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on Friday from the one who delivered a blistering attack on open internet regulations at the Newseum just two weeks ago.

Pai, who glossed over his plan to scrap rules banning internet providers from discriminating against or in favor of legal sites, never mentioned his opposition to now-dead privacy regulations that would have barred ISPs from selling your browsing history to advertisers without your permission.

Instead, the chairman talked about other initiatives including expanding broadband internet access to underserved areas of the country, improving over-the-air TV signals and other issues that could improve your connected life.

Expanding broadband

in his speech, Pai touted the FCC’s recent decisions to support rural broadband expansion, saying: “Every American who wants to participate in our digital economy should be able to do so.”

Since January, the commission has voted to spend $4.53 billion over the next decade on the Mobility Fund Phase II, a project to support expanding LTE coverage. It will also put almost $2 billion into the Connect America Fund Phase II, which will back deployments of wired connections with downloads of at least 10 megabits per second.

Pai’s predecessor Tom Wheeler had tried to get the Mobile Fund money in motion last year.

But like Wheeler, Pai has fewer tools at his disposal to get providers to barge into each others’ established markets, and Friday’s speech showed it.

He pledged action by the FCC to ease carriers’ access to existing poles and conduits — something FCC chairs have been saying for almost a decade. In a brief Q&A session, Pai added that action by Congress would help. Unfortunately, Congress has been neglecting this issue for about as long.

Pai also touted efforts to lower regulatory-paperwork burdens that he said, citing a February estimate by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, totaled almost $800 million a year.

“Do we want that money to be diverted to lawyers and accountants, figuring out how to comply with the FCC’s regulatory requirements?” Pai asked. “Or do we want it spent delivering American consumers better, and faster, and cheaper internet access?”

But broadband investment hit $75 billion in 2015, per the trade group U.S. Telecom. Making companies fill out fewer forms is good in principle but won’t make much difference here.

Lastly, Pai noted FCC action to ease the road to 5G wireless, which he said in a Q&A portion would be “essentially comparable” to wired broadband. What he didn’t say is that you’ll have to wait until 2020 or so to find out.

Pai has also established the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, which is tasked with developing ideas to bring broadband internet to underserved areas. Maybe they can discover something that all the prior studies have missed?

The chairman also touched on the FCC’s moves to allow carriers to borrow unused wireless spectrum normally occupied by WiFi signals to help patch coverage gaps and heralded the commission’s decision to begin voluntary transitioning over-the-air TV broadcasts to so-called “next-gen TV” with Ultra High Definition picture quality. Pai even committed to posting the full text of proposed items on the FCC’s website three weeks before commission meetings.

So about net neutrality…

As for open internet regulations, most of the volume on the topic at AEI Friday came from protesters against abolishing such rules. About a dozen people chanted slogans like “Hey, Pai, we can see, your bought-and-paid-for FCC!” and sang a cringe-inducing, net-neutrality-themed version of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Net Neutrality protesters
Protesters speak out against FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plans to end open internet regulations.

Pai, meanwhile, didn’t try to make much of a case for repealing net-neutrality rules beyond voicing his support for “innovation at the core of the networks.”

It’s difficult not to read that vague phrase as corp-speak for ISP interference that comedian John Oliver teed off on yet again in on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” At its end, Oliver invited viewers to visit gofccyourself.com — a shortcut to the FCC’s comments page for Pai’s proposed elimination of the net-neutrality rules.

If Pai wants to respond effectively to the hordes inundating that page–it had drawn 77,000 comments by early afternoon Monday–platitudes about the heavy hand of the regulatory state won’t do. He needs to make the case that lifting these rules will get companies to build out their own networks and build them into the territory of competitors.

That would let more people annoyed by one company’s misbehavior do something more productive and satisfying than leaving cranky comments on a government site: fire the offending firm and take their business elsewhere.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.