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FCC Chair Pai Shows the Mobile World Congress He’s the Un-Wheeler

New Trump FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s keynote speech on “Building the 5G Economy” at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today spotlighted to the communications world that the U.S. FCC is going in a very different policy direction than that of the previous FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who just happens to be speaking at the same event as a private citizen to a break-out session on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

The fact that they are both at the largest communications event in the world delivering starkly divergent messages and visions, on the same day, provides an instructive and illuminating opportunity to juxtapose their contrasting policy approaches.

First, FCC Chairman Pai’s remarks focused on getting the FCC and government out of the market’s way in the 5G economy; and on producing more 5G wireless choices for consumers, broadband investment, and innovation throughout the Internet ecosystem -- in order to encourage economic growth.

In contrast, Mr. Wheeler’s remarks are tellingly about “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which is about how governments that see the Internet more as a public shared commons and less as an economic exchange marketplace, can enable the digital commons to technologically integrate the current “digital sphere,” with the yet to be fully-automated “physical and biological spheres,” to create one fully-integrated system of world production.    

Second, FCC Chairman Pai favors a “light touch” pro-market approach because communications, competition, and competitors are productive solutions for consumers, not problems requiring heavy handed government intervention to fix.

In contrast, the previous Wheeler FCC favored the “strongest possible,” preemptive, utility regulations, because the FCC imagined that they could foresee that communications and competitive ISPs were, or could become, serious problems for the “public interest” thus demanding preemptive FCC/government control of broadband networks to prevent the potential problems that only the few could foresee as possible.

Third, FCC Chairman Pai is very practical in his leadership approach, believing that market competition can and does provide consumers with more and varied choices to meet consumers’ various wants, needs, and means; and that privately-owned, competitive, wireless and fixed, broadband facilities are vastly superior to Government-owned-networks (GONs) in meeting consumer demand, and in encouraging innovation in broadband network access, as well as in the rest of the Internet ecosystem.

In contrast, the previous FCC took an ideological approach in believing that competition doesn’t, or can’t, work to ensure net neutrality, because market competition creates incentives to not be net-neutral; and in believing that market competition cannot protect edge providers or consumers from unequal-bit-treatment, because only the FCC with the “strongest possible” utility regulations and authority can protect net neutrality and a free and open Internet. In addition, the previous FCC had more interest in promoting Government owned networks – i.e. promoting municipal broadband networks, and government owned, controlled, and shared spectrum – than in promoting more investment in privately owned and controlled broadband networks and spectrum.    

Fourth, FCC Chairman Pai recently explained to CNBC that “the Internet should be run by technologists and engineers and business people, not by regulators in Washington.” He told the Mobile World Congress “that means respecting principles of economics, physics, and law and acting with humility as we regulate one of the most dynamic marketplaces history has ever known.”

In contrast, it was apparent that the previous FCC’s approach was FCC-first, and that regulators were the answer to most all potential problems and should lead the sector in deciding in advance most everything, like who is regulated and who is not, what behaviors are to be banned, what business models and innovations are, or are not, permitted, and what future behaviors will be punished or not for un-neutrality.  

Finally, FCC Chairman Pai, shared his vision of true free and open innovation in the Internet ecosystem: “innovation is not limited to the so-called “edge” of networks; innovation within networks is also critical, especially in the mobile space. To realize the 5G future, we need smart infrastructure, not dumb pipes.”   

In contrast, the previous FCC favored retrograde Title II monopoly regulation policies to mandate net neutrality that treats all Internet traffic the same, the effective definition of a dumb pipe/network, to discriminate in favor of edge innovation over network innovation.  

In sum, it is instructive and illuminating to juxtapose the current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s market-driven, consumer-first-vision for competition and innovation, with the previous FCC’s net-neutrality-driven, edge-first-vision for the Internet.  

FCC Chairman Pai appears to be the un-Wheeler.  

Scott Cleland served as deputy U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy in the George H. W. Bush administration. He is president of Precursor LLC, an internetization consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.

 

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