New FCC chair closely guards his strategy to restructure net neutrality

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By David Shepardson | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The new chairman of the U.S. Federal
Communications Commission under President Donald Trump is
keeping under wraps his strategy to revise or reverse the Obama
administration’s “net neutrality” rules, but emphasized 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 websites 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 favor 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 Inc and AT&T Inc to notify them that the FCC was
closing investigations into “sponsored data” or “zero rating”
programs in which mobile phone companies give customers free
data for using certain video services. 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 program to circulate proposals before they
voted on. “A lot of involves divestment of power from the
chairman’s office,” he said.



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