Chill out about net neutrality, says FCC head, because mobile phones are great
All just part of a broader strategy
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. ®