WASHINGTON (CN) - Hot off the heels of his recent meeting with President Donald Trump, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission assured members of Congress Wednesday that rolling back net neutrality will ultimately help consumers.
Ajit Pai, who has served on the commission since 2012 and was elevated to chairman by President Trump in January, was summoned this morning to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
"We have taken some important steps to clear regulatory burdens which inhibit broadband deployment," Pai said.
Some of those steps included ending a requirement that carriers maintain a separate set of accounting books "merely for regulatory purposes." Pai said maintenance of these essentially useless books has cost carriers millions, but they are "never needed" for FCC data analysis.
Republicans on the committee repeatedly commended Pai's penchant for deregulation. Sen. Ted Cruz specifically called out net-neutrality protections as "Obamacare for the internet."
"The internet should be free of burdensome regulations," Cruz said.
By definition, net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source and without ever playing favorites with specific products or websites.
Pai agreed vigorously with the Texas senator, telling the commission that he favored a free and open internet and wanted to provide incentives to keep expanding and building internet accessibility well into the future.
So far, under Pai's leadership, the FCC has revoked nine companies from internet-access subsidy programs, suspended an investigation into free or unlimited data programs offered by communication giants like AT&T and Verizon, and walked back a report on E-Rate, a program that provides discounts to schools and libraries so that they can have affordable internet access.
Clearing away regulations and programs like these, he said, allows communication companies to focus on investments instead of unnecessary paperwork.
Some of these recent upheavals also include last week's vote by the commission to block data-security rules that would have forced internet service providers to increase data-privacy protections. Despite Tuesday's bombshell data dump by WikiLeaks – which purportedly revealed a vast number of hacking vulnerabilities affecting smartphones, tablets and even smart televisions – there was no mention by Pai or any other senators to reconsider the vote.
Pai did emphasize that under his leadership the FCC would be a mechanism to "facilitate and not frustrate innovation."
"That's why last month we started a proceeding aimed at allowing television broadcasters to fully enter the digital era,” he said. “Engineers in the broadcast industry have been hard at work developing a new transmission standard that would let broadcasters merge the capabilities of over-the-air broadcasting with broadband connectivity.”
This "Next Gen TV standard” – or ATSC 3.0, as it officially known – will offer consumers improved reception, more localized content and "better accessibility options for those with disabilities," he said.
"It could enable advanced emergency alerting with alerts tailored to particular communities and wake up sleeping devices to warn consumers of imminent emergencies,” Pai said. “And it could give consumers the ability to watch over-the-air programming from their mobile devices. But this new standard can’t be deployed without the approval of the FCC."
The new technology will begin on a voluntary, market-driven basis with final approving pending by the end of the year.
While so many of the innovations heralded by Pai appeared rosy, and Pai stressed his own support for internet freedom and affordability, the hearing was met with open criticism long before senators assembled in the chamber.
A hundred and seventy organizations signed an open letter urging Pai to safeguard a set of regulations known as Open Internet Order, which aim to preserve net neutrality.
In the letter, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, Greenpeace, the American Civil Liberties Union, and dozens more asked Pai and other members of the commission to "oppose legislation and regulatory actions that would threaten net neutrality and roll back the important protections put in place by the FCC in 2015, and to continue to enforce the Open Internet Order as it stands."
Since the order went into effect two years ago, "ISP revenues are at record highs, businesses continue developing innovative ideas and offerings,” the letter says.
Yet another letter addressed to Pai voices concern that the FCC is drifting away from affordability and accessibility programs instead of preserving them.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Human Rights, whose 200-strong members include the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP, says it appreciates the chairman’s effort "to address the digital divide," but that some of his recent subsidy rollbacks warrant a second look.
Revocation of the inmate calling-rate program called Lifeline set off warning bells for the organization. They say cutting off prisoners from their families by hiking up video-call rates will disenfranchise millions while also undercutting Pai’s promise to increase accessibility for all.
"Your recent decision to revoke Lifeline Broadband Provider (LBP) designations for nine broadband service providers will reduce the number of providers offering broadband,” the letter says. "When you opened your chairmanship with a pledge to focus on the digital divide, you pledged to 'help the private sector' without specifically mentioning helping the low-income communities on the wrong side of the divide."