Addressing an international audience of wireless industry executives and regulators at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai declared Tuesday that “regulatory humility” is the key to opening the door to network investment that, in turn, will unlock the potential of future fifth-generation (5G) wireless services. At his first major conference as FCC Chairman, Pai told listeners that “the torch at the FCC has been passed to a new generation” which will avoid imposing “heavy-handed decrees” in its quest to preserve “a free and open Internet.” Toward that end, Pai signaled his intention to roll back the Title II regulatory model that was adopted by the FCC two years ago in its Open Internet order, confirming that the FCC is “on track” to return to its previous approach to broadband network governance. 

Lamenting the FCC’s decision at that time to “apply utility-style regulation to today’s broadband networks,” Pai said the result is that “infrastructure spending is lower today than in 2015.” Pai also spotlighted the effects of the FCC’s decision during the past month to terminate its ongoing investigation into wireless carrier zero-rating practices that exempt certain web traffic from counting against subscriber data allowances. Observing, “in the days following our decision, all four national wireless providers in the United States announced new unlimited data plans or expanded their existing ones,” Pai proclaimed that “consumers are now benefiting from . . . offers made possible by a competitive marketplace” in which “government regulation did not produce that result.”

Pai therefore stressed that “America’s approach to broadband policy will be practical, not ideological,” as he explained that the FCC’s recent action on zero-rating “simply respected consumers’ preferences.” Declaring, “our approach will not be zero regulation, but light-touch . . . rules that are backed by long-standing principles in competition law,” Pai argued: “that means taking targeted action to address real problems instead of imposing broad preemptive rules to address hypothetical harms.” Nevertheless, in comments regarding Pai’s speech, Free Press policy director Matt Wood countered that the claim that the FCC’s net neutrality rules are utility style regulations that are hurting broadband deployment has been debunked,” as he cited “not just the actual language of the FCC order which explicitly forbears from the bulk of Title II, but the actual impact that Title II reclassification has had on the market.”