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FCC chairman defends net neutrality's end as he opens 5G door

Ajit Pai vows to have "light-touch regulations" and that no company will get a free pass.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (right) and EU Commissioner Andrus Ansip (center) have differing views on regulating the mobile industry.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (right) and EU Commissioner Andrus Ansip (center) have differing views on regulating the mobile industry. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

To the wireless industry crowd at the final keynote panel of the Mobile World Congress trade show on Monday, Ajit Pai's words were music to the ears. 

Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, opened his speech with a call to free up more spectrum -- the radio airwaves required for carriers to deploy and expand their networks. He said he intends to hold an auction in November to sell spectrum in the higher-frequency 28 gigahertz band, critical for blazing 5G speeds, as well as spectrum in the 24 GHz band at a later time. He also said he plans to make so-called midrange-band spectrum available for commercial use.

He concluded his talk with a defense of his rollback of net neutrality, or the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, reiterating his arguments that "light-touch regulation" will spur innovation and investment in the wireless industry. He stressed that there would still be rules enforced and that no company would get a "free pass."

"It shifts from preemptive regulation ... to targeted enforcement," Pai said.

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The receptive audience at MWC 2018 in Barcelona stands in stark contrast to his scheduled appearance last month at CES -- where he didn't show up. A few days before the big Las Vegas consumer electronics conference began, Pai pulled out of the event, reportedly because of death threats. (The FCC declined to comment on the reports.)

Pai courts controversy for spearheading the dismantling of the rules that govern net neutrality. After a 3-2 vote by the agency in December, the rules will be repealed on April 23.

But Pai was in a safe place on Monday evening in Barcelona. He is, after all, at the mobile industry's biggest gathering of the year, a conference where telecom executives call for fewer regulations so often it should be a motto hanging on the wall next to this year's slogan,"Creating a Better Future." There isn't any crowd in the world more receptive to his philosophy of light (or no) regulation.

Two of his fellow speakers were Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and Bharti Enterprises CEO Sunil Bharti Mittal, telecom executives who both called for less regulation and more spectrum -- exactly what Pai had spoken about minutes earlier.

Ongoing fights over net neutrality

Adding a wrinkle to the discussion was Andrus Ansip, EU commissioner for the union's Digital Single Market. 

"I think Europe and the US can agree on the needs to preserve the freedom of the internet economy," he said. "Where we may differ is how to do it." 

sprint-ceo

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure speaking at MWC 2018.

Roger Cheng/CNET

The fight over net neutrality is just heating up. While internet service providers in the US like Verizon and Comcast, along with Republican lawmakers, believe the rules being overturned are too cumbersome and lower the incentive to upgrade their networks, consumers advocacy groups and Democrats have blasted the move, noting that the lack of rules opens the opportunity for companies to abuse their power and prioritize certain traffic at the expense of others.  

On Thursday, 23 state attorneys general filed a lawsuit against the FCC, challenging the commission's ability to overturn the rule, and other consumer groups and tech companies will likely take their own legal action. States such as New York have passed laws requiring that companies doing business with the government honor the current net neutrality laws.

Indeed, Ansip noted that the back-and-forth fight over net neutrality rules, the various lawsuits over the years and now the states taking their own separate actions would create an even more volatile environment. 

"It's not so easy to change the rules in the EU," he said. "There is predictability in Europe."

Sprint's Claure came to Pai's defense, noting that light-touch regulation is beneficial for those managing networks. He added that he doesn't see a problem with charging more for faster access to the network, comparing that sort of structure to toll roads. He said that with such a competitive market in the US, consumers will dictate how those prices move over time. 

He also warned that the US would fall behind if it doesn't streamline the process of letting carriers get access to buildings or other structures to add cellular towers -- an area Pai also addressed as something he wants to fix.

Toward the end of the hour-plus panel, the audience got testy as the debate over net neutrality continued. One member shouted that the panelists should move on. With the show based in Europe, where the net neutrality debate is effectively settled, audience members were likely looking for other insights about regulations across the world and not just a debate going on in the US. 

"It's up to Americans to say what will happen in the US," Ansip said.

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