Major pieces of President Donald Trump’s deregulation agenda have been held up, but for technology and communications policy, his approach is making big inroads.
The president is expected to soon sign a bill that would block Internet privacy protections after Congress approved the change this week. And the Federal Communications Commission under Trump-appointed chairman Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, has moved to rapidly to undo rules and decisions that major telecommunications carriers oppose.
The rapid upheaval may be due to Pai’s long familiarity with the agency, where he has been a commissioner for five years, as well as the strong backing by the industry’s biggest players. Some of Trump’s other policy efforts, such as repealing and replacing Obamacare, don’t have comparable support from powerful lobbying groups. And many of his other agency and cabinet appointees have considerably less experience in their jobs.
“Ajit Pai could very well have been the FCC Chairman under President Kasich or Jeb Bush,” says Kevin Werbach, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a former FCC staffer in the 1990s. “His agenda is the well-established Republican Congressional agenda.”
Pai was at it again on Wednesday. While most of the tech world was focused on the introduction of new Samsung phones, Pai moved to crush another pro-consumer program that big telecom carriers don’t like. He dismissed 40 applications from mostly small companies to offer subsidized broadband service to low income customers, which would have potentially undercut the price of Internet service from the larger carriers. Last month, Pai had rolled back an expansion of the subsidies, part of the FCC’s decades-old Lifeline program for basic telephone service that Obama-appointed chairman Tom Wheeler had expanded.
Pai also cancelled the FCC’s effort to accredit new Lifeline program broadband providers after larger carriers had asked the agency for exemptions so they wouldn’t have to offer the subsidies in much of their territories. Now, smaller carriers that want to offer the subsidies will have to go a more laborious process state by state to get into the program.
Some states had challenged the FCC accreditation effort in court, Pai noted, so ending the federal effort avoids that battle. “This will benefit all Americans, including those participating in the program,” the chairman said in a statement,
The move follows Pai’s decisions last month to end an investigation of whether Comcast (CMCSA), AT&T (T), and Verizon (VZ) were violating net neutrality rules by favoring their own video apps. The carriers let customers watch streaming video on phones of their own apps without counting against monthly data caps, a practice known as zero rating, while requiring other video services to pay them for the same treatment. Comcast exempted its streaming TV product for its broadband caps.
And Pai has scheduled to adopt further policies the big company favor at the agency’s next meeting on April 20. As part of an exceptionally busy agenda, the agency is slated to move forward with rules that would limit the ability of local governments to delay small cell phone site installations, make it easier for carriers to remove older, copper wire lines, and largely end an effort to bring more competition to a high-speed data service for businesses known as special access. The agency will also consider easing the limits on the number of TV stations that one company can own.
After that, the battle may shift to the net neutrality rules adopted in 2015. Pai has frequently complained that the FCC’s rules are too burdensome and discourage network investments. But it may be tough for him to revoke those rules in their entirety, unlike the smaller changes he has already pushed through.
“He’s a good enough lawyer to understand that the FCC can’t just switch sides on an issue because someone new is in the White House–they’ll be overturned in court,” Werbach says. “So he’s trying to get Congress to move first.”
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That worked for eliminating the Internet privacy protection rules, but lawmakers may be more reluctant to move on net neutrality.
“The Republican leadership, after years of insisting that Congress should take action, realizes how controversial any move would be, especially after the healthcare debacle,” Werbach explains. “So they keep calling on Pai to move first. It’s a big game of chicken.”