FCC chair Ajit Pai said that in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission chose "markets over mandates," and signaled he is convinced that was the right way to go.
Pai was speaking, remotely, at a Federalist Society COVID-19 and the Law Conference Thursday (June 11). He also cited past FCC deregulatory items--scrapping net neutrality rules, deregulating business broadband--as reaping COVID-19 benefits, the false, foolish and hysterical opposition to those moves notwithstanding.
Pai said that the big challenge was pursuing goals on behalf of the public and with broadband networks that are mostly privately owned and operated. The deregulatory Pai said he certainly understood that under the circumstances people would be tempted to look for " any lever they can find to force private companies to carry out the government’s goals."
But he said that guided by history, the law and economics 101, " the Commission decided to put its trust in markets before mandates."
That translated to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which more than 750 broadband providers signed. "First, no consumer would lose service due to an inability to pay a bill because of the disruptions associated with the pandemic. Second, no one would be charged late fees because of the pandemic. And third, WiFi hot spots would be opened up to anyone who needed them," he told them.
He called that an overwhelming response--including pledges from all the major ISPs within 48 hours--and one that he said led to faster progress than " command-and-control" regulations.
And Pai suggested those companies had not responded principally because the request came from their principal regulator. "Why are these private companies acting in the public interest? I think the biggest factor is that these decisions are made by people. And in trying times, most people want to do the right thing, not just for their company, but for their fellow citizens and for their country." But he did not suggest it was unalloyed altruism, either.
"I also think that the market creates powerful incentives for companies to do the right thing. If your company doesn’t step up for you, or even worse, engages in bad behavior, consumers will be much more likely to turn to the competition in the weeks, months, and years ahead," he argued.
Pai also argued that the FCC's deregulatory moves before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19 helped cope with the pandemic. He pointed to the 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom order eliminating net neutrality rules, a move he has said before and said again Thursday led to a boost in network investments, which are paying off as capacity becomes that much more important in a stay-at-home world.
He also argued that deregulating the business data services market, he called it "relaxing necessary command and control regulations," also boosted investment in networks.
He said the hysterical predictions that such deregulation would "herald the end of the internet as we know it" were "as false today as they were foolish then."
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