FCC chair touts «America first» to an unimpressed audience

Stefan Hammond / ComputerWorld Hong Kong
15 Mar 2018

FCC chairman and former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai reportedly canceled his appearance at CES in January because of death threats, according to numerous sources including Recode.net .

The problem: the FCC December's repeal of net neutrality, and Pai isn't the first FCC chair to feel the heat from this contentious issue. “The chairmanship of the FCC is an especially public role, and threats to its leaders and commissioners aren’t [uncommon]” said Recode. “In 2014, [net neutrality] protesters descended on the home of then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, and prevented him from leaving his driveway.”

Now the die has been cast. “The Federal Communications Commission's repeal of net neutrality is scheduled to take effect on April 23, according to a copy of the order published with the Federal Register,” reported CNN. “The Republican-led FCC voted along party lines in December to repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections, which were intended to keep the internet open and fair.” Tech industry and consumer advocacy groups are fighting the repeal, said CNN.

And in March, the West Coast state of Washington set up its own net neutrality requirements. “We know that when [Washington] D.C. fails to act, Washington State has to do so,” Governor Jay Inslee said before signing the measure that lawmakers passed with bipartisan support, said an AP report. Inslee said the FCC decision was “a clear case of the Trump administration favoring powerful corporate interests over the interests of millions of Washingtonians and Americans.”

A panel at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona—titled “The Future of the Industry: Transatlantic Digital Policy and Regulation”—featured a number of luminaries and CNN presenter Kristie Lu Stout as moderator. Pai was very much the guest of honor, so to speak.

Opening remarks

The presentation began with World Bank Group President Dr Jim Yong Kim giving a brief yet eloquent keynote. While his oratory edged towards utopian ideals, his heartfelt speech was personalized—Kim detailed his own journey from then-poor Korea to head of the World Bank, and urged everyone in the audience to make universal connectivity happen to give the world's population hope, and to prevent vulnerable people from sinking into the swamp of extremist views.

Kim was allotted about 13 minutes for his speech, while other guests got 4-5 minutes each to leave time for discussion. Andrus Ansip, VP of the Commission and Commissioner for Digital Single Market, European Commission, echoed Kim's call for global action and connectivity for all. “I do not want a digital motorway for a lucky few while some others use a digital dirt track,” he said. “Access to the internet is a right. It has to be open to everyone.”

Then Pai strode to the podium and quickly made his position clear: “I’ll tackle a topic where I hope to offer some unique insight: What is America’s strategy for seizing the 5G future?” And what's the rest of the world called? “Here be dragons”?

“I want the United States to be the best country for innovating and investing in 5G networks,” said Pai. “I want American entrepreneurs to push the boundaries of the possible and American consumers to benefit from next-generation technologies.”

Pai's long-winded analysis of spectrum (larded with name-dropping of US telcos, including his previous employer Verizon) lasted over ten minutes, and he was far from done. By the time he finished, a third of the allotted hour has disappeared into a verbal swamp of US-centric anecdotes, prevarications on the recent net neutrality scrap, and promises of “light-touch regulation.”

Testy audience

Lu Stout remained poised but was clearly irked by Pai's hogging of the clock. She reminded him of the pre-agreed 4/5-minute limit and said “I think you went on a bit of a filibuster there”—referring to a US legislative tactic where politicians speak for extended lengths of time.

The next two scheduled guests (Deutsche Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges and Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao) were no-shows. Sunil Bharti Mittal (founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises) and Sprint CEO Marcelo Clure filled in for the absent European CEOs and held their respective speeches to the agreed time limit. Finally, the panel discussion was underway.

Lu Stout immediately rounded on Pai and asked about “the elephant in the room”: net neutrality. “How will history judge this decision?” she asked.

“I would hope that public opinion over time is based more on facts and less on public relations campaigns,” Pai said. “Companies that started off small like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google became worldwide players precisely because we had a market-based approach that encouraged worldwide investment, as well as innovation on the edge,” he said, somewhat at odds with his own speech, where he criticized “20th century utility-style regulation.”

Ansip was more impassive, saying that in his role at the EC, he wasn't highly concerned with what happened in the USA. By then, the presentation was well over its scheduled hour mark.

“Toward the end of the hour-plus panel, the audience got testy as the debate over net neutrality continued,” reported CNET. “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.”

Think globally, act globally

Pai's “America First” routine should probably have been delivered to a domestic audience at CES—despite the “Transatlantic” angle of the scheduled panel discussion, his remarks were anything but. The USA is a world leader in ICT, and Clure said that 5G would “generate $500 billion [revenue] and 3 million new jobs” stateside. But future 5G networks must bridge oceanic and other gaps by cleaving to global standards.

The FCC chair's remarks seemed to echo a yearning for the insular superiority the USA enjoyed in, for example, the 1950s. In our globalized century, this simply won't do. Sprint CEO Clure is Bolivian-born, and Sprint is majority-owned by Japanese telecommunications company SoftBank Group. Nowadays technology transcends borders, and beating jingoistic drums jars the rhythm.

It even draws catcalls from the audience.

First published in Computerworld Hong Kong

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