FCC's Pai promises 'light touch' regulation in MWC address

Ajit Pai (left) faces a lengthy agenda of regulatory concerns as he settles into the FCC chairman’s office.

BARCELONA, Spain—FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was no less hesitant to voice his penchant for “light-touch regulation” in Barcelona than he is at home.

“From my perspective the key to maximizing our 5G future is first to maximize investments spent on broadband,” he told attendees during a keynote presentation with other speakers Tuesday afternoon. “Our approach will not be zero regulation, but light-touch regulation.”

Among other things, Pai specifically pointed to last week’s announcement that the FCC would drop the investigations into the zero-rated data policies that have recently gained favor among wireless carriers and other service providers. Those probes were launched under Tom Wheeler, who preceded Pai as chairman but stepped down ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.

The zero-rated model has come under fire from some who claim it violates net neutrality guidelines by giving some content providers—particularly those of the carriers themselves—an unfair advantage over others. But Pai claimed they enable users to access content and services users may not otherwise be able to.

“Free data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income consumers,” he said.

Pai was joined on the panel, which examined the hurdles of striking a balance between developing regulatory policy and spurring innovation, by Andrus Ansip, vice president of digital single market for the European Commission. As Ansip noted, developing regulatory policy for Europe can be  very different—and much more complex—than for the U.S., because of the multiple markets and existing policy frameworks in the European Union.

Indeed, those complexities proved costly when carriers rolled out 4G networks. So the European Commission is working to address those issues ahead of 5G deployments.

“When 4G came along, Europe was slow to push ahead,” he said. “We do not want to make the same mistake with 5G.”

Pai faces a lengthy agenda of regulatory concerns as he settles into the chairman’s office. In addition to shelving the probes into zero-rated data, under a 2-1 Republican majority in the Commission he is widely expected to cease enforcement of the net neutrality rules that the FCC adopted under Wheeler two years ago. 

In fact, he called out those rules as an example of an outdated regulatory mindset in a failed attempt to address the digital economy. And he said such regulations have led to decreased investments in wireless networks and new technologies.

“This reversal (of Clinton-era policies) was not necessary to solve any problems,” Pai argued. “We were not living in a digital dystopia."