FCC's Pai: Private Investment Key to Closing Digital Divide

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that the "most powerful tool" for closing the digital divide and promoting faster, better broadband is to create rules that encourage private investment in those high-speed networks, but signaled this week that it was at least as important to get rid of rules that stand in the way.

That came in a speech in Texas Thursday, where the chairman was speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters Radio show and visiting with Hurricane Harvey-impacted areas.

The chairman also said his FCC would promote innovative business plans, like zero rating, not discourage them.

Related: FCC Proposes Eliminating Rules Copy Requirement

He said an "iron reality" is that broadband networks are expensive, and that private companies don't have to build them. "Capital doesn’t have to be spent. Risks don’t have to be taken," he said according to a copy of the speech. "So the more difficult government makes the business case for deployment, the less likely it is that broadband providers, big and small, will invest the billions of dollars needed to connect consumers.

"Too often, unnecessary rules make it more expensive to construct these networks than it needs to be."

He said the effort to roll back Title II classification should be seen in that context, as part of a comprehensive review of how to encourage the construction of next-generation networks.

He said other parts of that effort include eliminating rules that deter the transition from copper nets to fiber and looking at how state and local governments impact the speed and cost of deployment--the FCC is looking at streamlining permitting and citing and potentially preempting local and state regs that get in the way.

"Entrepreneurs are constantly developing new technologies and services.  But too often, they’re unable to bring them to market quickly for consumers because outdated rules or regulatory inertia stand in the way," he said.

He cited among those the investigation led by his predecessor, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, to investigate into free data (zero rating) plans, which the Wheeler FCC suggested could violate net neutrality rules. Pai closed that investigation.

"Wireless companies offering consumers something for free has proven to be popular, particularly among low-income Americans. And it’s made the wireless marketplace more competitive. Going forward, the FCC will seek to promote, not prevent, that kind of innovation," he said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.