Chill out about net neutrality, says FCC head, because mobile phones are great
All just part of a broader strategy
Mobile World Congress The head of America's telecom watchdog the FCC, Ajit Pai, didn't mention net neutrality by name once during his keynote at the Mobile World Congress in San Francisco.
Which is pretty remarkable given that it is pretty much the only issue that people outside the telecom policy bubble care about.
In fact, if you didn't know that the FCC has called its effort to unravel its own rules about internet access "restoring internet freedom," you could well have sat through the keynote and never known that Pai holds in his hands the future path of the internet in the United States.
"The FCC is currently examining whether to change the regulations," he noted. "The CTIA has expressed its concerns about them ... there have been a lot of comments ... but we shouldn't view it in isolation, it's just part of a comprehensive strategy ... for expanding next-generation networks."
And then he moved on to talking about spectrum.
The strange thing is that while Pai is understandably nervous about even saying the words "network neutrality" given the enormous and widespread support for the concept – even at the Mobile World Congress – the rest of his keynote revealed something interesting and worrying.
The chair of the FCC doesn't really know anything about the internet.
That may seem like a crazy statement, given that the internet is by far the most important communications network of the modern era and that Pai will personally be deciding how it will be defined in law later this year.
But throughout the course of his keynote, it became clear that Pai – a lifelong mobile industry staffer – sees the internet solely through the lens of mobile networks.
Forget the ARPANET, Vint Cerf and TCP/IP; forget packet switching, fiber and RFCs; because the guy in charge of the federal telecom regulator sees only 3, 4 and 5G, spectrum allocations and mobile phones.
Admittedly, he was on stage at the Mobile World Congress, but the contrast between when he was talking about mobile networks and discussing anything else was jarring.
Pai opened his keynote talking about how wireless networks had saved the day in Texas with the recent hurricanes. Just five per cent of cell sites went down – providing much-needed communication to people trapped and struggling.
He then embarked on an explanation of how the first iPhone was not in itself a success because it didn't offer 3G data. And then some detailed facts about mobile markets: the rise in consumer demand, the increasing usage of mobile data, the cost per megabyte, the speeds of LTE.
Pai was supremely comfortable with all of this information. His depth of knowledge was obvious and he was comfortable on stage.
He then talked about getting internet access to rural areas. But solely in terms of mobile phone access. He drove from Houston to Austin last week, apparently – and hit a dead spot on the way. He told a story about a woman who had died, and when found it was determined that she had tried to call 911 no fewer than 38 times, but couldn't because her call couldn't get through. It seemingly never occurred to Pai that a landline was likely the answer.
And then he got stuck into mobile network expansion. Billions in funds redirected by the FCC, but a worrying reduction in investment by private companies in 2016 – down nine per cent according to Pai (others dispute that figure).
And that claimed reduction in investment was the segue to the very brief mention of an internet that isn't about mobile networks. And to the enormous, career-defining decision that he will soon make about net neutrality.
Suddenly the precision, the clarity, the depth of knowledge and history was all gone, replaced by vaguerisms and generalizations and notes about "moving toward a decision." Pai was less confident, almost floundering on stage. The biggest decision he will make as chair and he seemed unable to even start breaking it down into logical parts. Why?
Well, the fact is that the FCC only very recently started considering the internet as part of its beat. When it was created in 1934, it was most concerned with radio. Later, with mobile networks. The truth is it has very little institutional knowledge or awareness of the wired network that underpins the internet, that uses different standards and protocols, and that swept everything else aside.
And while previous FCC chair Tom Wheeler pulled in people who knew about the internet (albeit many of whom started taking their direction from internet giants like Google), Pai remains old-skool FCC – focused obsessively on mobile networks. (He also knows a surprising amount about AM and FM radio and defends it at every opportunity.)
The moment he stopped talking about net neutrality, the vague, unfocussed Pai was suddenly replaced on stage with Confident Mobile Pai, and he proceeded to talk with precision and depth about low, medium and high band spectrum. Frankly, it became almost unlistenable: a mobile policy wonk dream distillation of buzzwords and acronyms.
And then Pai closed out by outlining his "number one priority" and what he was going to do about it. What was it? No, not the internet. Not the exploding world of content and communication and competition that net neutrality threatens to restrict, even permanently damage.
No, his number one priority is robocalls. Why? Because mobile phone customers hate them. And so he is going to work with phone companies to solve the problem. "The industry has made great strides," he noted, "but I want to start working with you on a call authentication system that will give relief to people."
After his speech, Pai was "interviewed" by the head of the wireless industry body the CTIA, Meredith Attwell Baker, herself once an FCC commissioner.
Attwell Baker showered Pai with praise – just as he will inevitably do to the next FCC chair once Pai has taken over as head of either the CTIA, the NCTA, or some other industry body when he has left the FCC.
Among the many softball questions she asked Pai was one about his use of social media. "I find it is a tremendous way to reach people," he said. "And to be more accessible to people." Seemingly noticing the one-way social media street he was advocating, he then gave an obscure example of how one tweet he had seen had enabled him to act on a small local issue. It was about mobile networks, of course.
The whole thing revealed a dangerous truth: Pai lives in a bubble. A mobile industry bubble. He sees himself as a modernizer. He has made great play about his scrapping of many of the FCC's most arcane and unnecessary rules and procedures, and he's to be applauded for that institutional house cleaning.
But the truth is that the man who holds the US internet in his hands is stuck in the past, surrounded by mobile phone and cable industry lobbyists who bunch together to crowd out anyone else. They talk in excited terms about 5G and the internet – but only their smaller, more controlled, cleaner and more mobile phone-friendly version of the internet. And Pai buys it, completely.
He is Mobile Man living in the Internet World. A creature of vested interests. And he either can't, or doesn't want to, see over their heads and catch sight of the messier, less-gilded world that everyone else is living in. ®