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Axe net neutrality? Keep the set-top box lock-in? Easy as Pai: New FCC boss backs Big Cable

Phew! US ISPs finally free to roll out broadband, right?

The new head of the US Federal Communications Commission has promised to cut back on red tape and free up Big Cable – which has been suffering under record profits for too long.

The first meeting of the federal regulator under the Trump Administration saw chair Ajit Pai makes some announcements:

  • Requirements for radio stations to keep on file letters and emails sent by the public are scrapped.
  • It's no longer necessary for cable companies to open their main offices to the public.
  • A new Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) is created, whose job will be to "identify regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment."

The announcements gave Pai an opportunity to paint himself as a small-government pragmatist, but what was notable was what was not on the agenda: network neutrality and a proposal to force Big Cable to open up the set-top box market.

As the FCC's three commissioners turned up at work, they were met with protestors arguing for the retention of net neutrality rules – something that Pai has said he will get rid of. Pai refused to be drawn on his plans, telling reporters: "I favor a free and open internet, and I oppose Title II," referring to the legislative statute that the FCC previously decided applies to internet services and which gives the regulator legal authority over them.

It is very possible that the new broadband commission will be Pai's way to develop external justification for scrapping the net neutrality rules that restrict the ability of internet providers to charge companies and subscribers more for specific services.

Big Cable claimed during the extensive debate over net neutrality that it would be forced to cut back on the rollout of broadband services if the rules were passed. In reality, it did no such thing – as former FCC chair Tom Wheeler pointed out with some glee a year later.

But with Pai now at the helm and the Republicans with a majority, it's likely that the same arguments will be rolled out to justify a scaleback on the current FCC rules without commissioners having to vote down their own regulations.

The commission will be tasked with making recommendations about removing the "regulatory barriers" it identifies. Pai suggested these would be along the lines of "local franchising, zoning, permitting, and rights-of-way regulations."

He noted in an official announcement – that could have been written by Big Cable lobbyists, and probably was – that "building, upgrading, and deploying broadband networks isn’t easy, and red tape often can make the task harder than it needs to be."

The critical question, of course, will be who gets to sit on the commission. The FCC will put out a public notice soon, complete with "an explanation of the member-selection process." Here is our wild prediction: Big Cable will end up with a majority of the seats.

Bye-bye free market, welcome back cash cow

As well as providing the cable industry with free reign to slash regulations they don't like, Pai presented a second gift-wrapped present: scrapping plans to force them to open up the set-top market.

The unnecessary control of cable boxes, which the industry forces millions of consumers to rent at vastly inflated prices, brings it $20bn a year in profit. But despite three serious efforts by the FCC over three decades – most recently by Tom Wheeler – to stop the rip-off, the cable industry has managed to fiercely protect its cash cow.

Having been forced off his original plan to require cable companies to provide cable data in an open format, Wheeler attempted to call the cable companies' bluff when they offered to develop an alternative app-based approach. Now that proposal has – surprise, surprise – also been scrapped in what is literally a re-run of the strategy that the industry used last time.

And so the pendulum, which for the first time in decades had swung away from the companies that the FCC is supposed to regulate, has swung back firmly into Big Cable's court. ®

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