By Melissa Repko
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai argued Thursday that less regulation and more tax breaks will help bring high-speed internet to rural areas and speed up investment in fifth generation wireless technology.
Pai also stood by his contentious proposal to roll back rules around net neutrality.
Pai spoke at an event hosted by the Institute for Policy Innovation, an Irving think tank that advocates less government regulation and public policy driven by the free market. It drew an audience of tech executives, students and even AT&T's chief executive Randall Stephenson.
The former Verizon attorney was appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the five-person FCC, a government agency that regulates radio, TV, wire, cable and satellite communications.
Under Pai, the FCC has taken a sharp turn with its approach to regulation. Pai has pushed for the reversal of Obama-era FCC rulesthat reclassified the internet as a utility and added protections for net neutrality, the principle that internet providers, such as Comcast, Verizon and Dallas-based AT&T, must treat all content equally. Under the rules, for example, internet service providers could not not speed up access to preferred websites or slow down those to competitors.
The move has caused Pai to get more attention than the typical regulator. HBO comedian John Oliver skewered Pai on one of his shows and urged viewers to submit comments to the FCC — which ultimately caused the government agency's website to crash. Pai was even targeted by Bette Midler in a critical tweet. Dozens of big-name companies and Silicon Valley giants, including Amazon, Google and Twitter, protested with a "day of action" in July.
Opponents say the rollback could cause internet service providers to block or slow content on certain sites or put up virtual tollbooths for companies like Netflix that rely on the internet for delivery. And they say internet service providers like AT&T have more reason to give preferential treatment as they become both content distributors and owners. Comcast owns NBC. Verizon owns AOL and Yahoo. AT&T is on track to buy Time Warner, which includes HBO, CNN and Warner Bros.
The FCC has received more than 22 million public comments about the proposed rollback of net neutrality rules. The overwhelming majority opposed the changes.
He said he favors a "free and open internet," but believes the FCC should return to the light touch regulations of the 1990s.
Under Pai, the FCC has also made two other moves that AT&T favors. It dropped the investigation into zero-rating, the term for waiving data charges for customers when they use certain apps or websites. AT&T uses the practice as a perk for wireless customers who use AT&T's DirecTV streaming apps. The FCC also declined to review the pending merger of AT&T and Time Warner. The FCC was not required to review the merger, since no wireless licenses will be transferred.
Net neutrality was a popular topic for Thursday's audience, too. Audience members submitted a stack of related questions for the FCC chairman.
In his remarks, Pai said less regulation will also help expedite the deployment of 5G. To bring about 5G, companies will be building out a network of numerous small cells, similar in size to a pizza box. He said that will trigger the need for government approvals. He said the FCC is drafting a deployment-friendly code that could be adopted by local officials to minimize red tape and delays.
During his time as chairman, Pai said he's traveled the country and visited small towns, rural areas and Native American reservations without the broadband that connects them to educational tools, job listings and telemedicine. He said he'd like to help close the digital divide by limiting regulation and offering tax breaks to network operators who bring high-speed internet to designated "gigabit opportunity zones."
"The most powerful tool, in my view at least, is to establish rules that incentive and maximize private investment in high-speed networks," he said.
He said companies don't have to invest billions in improving broadband networks.
"Too often, unnecessary rules make it more expensive to construct these networks than it needs to be," he said.
During his remarks, Pai also spoke about his visit earlier in the week to Houston and coastal areas with damage from Hurricane Harvey. He took an aerial tour over the flooded region, visited a 911 dispatch center and saw rows of families who are staying in cots in Houston's convention center shelter.