New FCC chair tight-lipped on net neutrality strategy

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai.
Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai.

The new chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under president Donald Trump is keeping under wraps his strategy to revise or reverse the Obama administration's net neutrality rules, but emphasised he is committed to ensuring an open Internet.

Ajit Pai, 44, a Republican lawyer who has served as a FCC commissioner since 2012, strongly opposed former Democratic president Barack Obama administration's 2015 net neutrality rules that reclassified broadband providers and treated them like a public utility.

"I believe, as I think most Americans do, in a free and open Internet and the only question is what regulatory framework best secures that," Pai said in an interview in his FCC office, where several storage boxes remain to be unpacked. "Before the imposition of these Depression-era rules, we had for 20 years a bipartisan consensus on a regulatory model."

In December, Pai vowed to take a "weedwacker" to unneeded rules and has not backed away from his prior criticism of net neutrality, when he again said net neutrality's "days are numbered".

The net neutrality rules bar Internet access providers from slowing consumer access to Web content. A federal appeals court upheld the rules last year.

Internet providers fear net neutrality rules make it harder to manage Internet traffic and make investment in additional capacity less likely, while Web sites worry that without the rules they might lose access to customers.

Unlike Trump, Pai cannot simply issue an order doing away with the net neutrality rules, but must go through an administrative process. Pai is keeping his cards close to the vest, only saying he will mount a "careful look at the regulatory framework".

Last month, then FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said reversing the net neutrality rules "is not a slam-dunk" and will face the "high hurdle" of "a fact-based showing that so much has changed in just two short years that a reversal is justified".

Pai faces opposition on Capitol Hill and from many on social media to reversing net neutrality, with Democrats urging him not to favour the "big broadband barons" as one called them.

"There is no problem that needs to be fixed," said senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. "Net neutrality rules ensure those with the best ideas, not simply the best-funded ideas, have the opportunity to share their content with the world."

Pai said in 2015 that the FCC had adopted the sweeping new net neutrality rules at Obama's behest and would result in "higher broadband prices, slower speeds, less broadband deployment, less innovation, and fewer options for American consumers".

Pai's goal is "a modern flexible framework that gives everybody a level playing field".

Wheeler last month urged the next FCC not to "undo something that is demonstrably working" and says broadband investment has remained high.

Earlier this week, a key Republican on telecommunications policy, Representative Marsha Blackburn, said Congress will let the FCC "make the first move" on net neutrality.

Last Friday, Pai sent letters to Verizon Communications and AT&T to notify them that the FCC was closing investigations into "sponsored data" or "zero rating" programmes in which mobile phone companies give customers free data for using certain video services. The FCC had previously raised concerns about their data policies.

"My position is the government should not be in the position of prohibiting companies in a competitive marketplace from offering free data," Pai said.

Pai has taken steps to make the FCC more transparent, including a pilot programme to circulate proposals before they are voted on.

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