Pai Huddles Mostly With Allies Ahead of Net Neutrality Rewrite

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By Kyle Daly

The Federal Communications Commission is taking dozens of meetings with companies, trade groups and public policy advocates as it gears up to change its regulatory classification of broadband and loosen its net neutrality rules. But GOP chairman Ajit Pai’s own calendar mostly has been filled with proponents of redoing the commission’s broadband classification and rewriting the rules, a Bloomberg BNA analysis of FCC records shows.

The existing rules bar internet providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. from blocking or slowing data flowing over their networks in most circumstances. The net neutrality battle historically has pitted the providers against tech companies, including Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Facebook Inc., and public policy groups that favor the existing rules as the FCC weighs how to rewrite them.

Pai opposed the current regulatory classification and net neutrality rules when the Democratic-controlled agency issued them in 2015, and has made no secret of his desire to revisit them. Stakeholders expect the FCC to reverse the regulatory classification and issue a new set of net neutrality rules before the end of the year. FCC records show the GOP chairman has met with one group in favor of keeping the existing rules since becoming agency chief in January.

The FCC expects to hold more meetings after a public comment period closes Aug. 30, an agency spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA. The meetings and comments will form the public record Pai must weigh under administrative law as he mulls changes to the net neutrality rules. More than 21 million comments had been submitted as of Aug. 28.

Pai or his staff have sat down 15 times since he became chairman in January with companies and groups asking him to undo the FCC’s underlying regulatory classification of broadband and enact looser net neutrality rules. Pai or his staff have held four meetings with groups that have urged him to keep their priorities in mind in whatever approach he takes; and another three meetings with people urging Pai to leave the issue to Congress or the Supreme Court to resolve. Two of those meetings were with tech trade groups, CALinnovates and the Application Developers Alliance, who want Pai to let Congress rewrite the rules. AT&T is a member of both groups.

Timeline

Groups including NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, whose members include Comcast and Charter Communications Inc., and the Telecommunications Industry Association, a telecom standards group, have told Pai and his staff that the commission’s current regulatory classification has harmed broadband investment and innovation. A number of those groups have identified specific aspects of the current rules beyond the broad regulatory classification that they want Pai to revise or eliminate. TIA said it wants to Pai to let providers charge online content companies to speed their traffic on its way to consumers. That practice, known as paid prioritization or “internet fast lanes,” is banned under the existing rules.

Participants in other meetings with Pai or his staff have largely focused on specific stakeholder goals for revising the net neutrality rules. Representatives of free-market think tank the R Street Institute met with Pai policy adviser Nathan Leamer in May to make a case for allowing internet providers to offer sponsored data programs in whatever approach Pai adopts.

Pai has met with one group, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, that expressly asked him to preserve the current rules. Gloria Tristani, Carmen Scurato and Francella Ochillo, lawyers from the group, met with Pai in June. As Scurato sees it, Tristani’s status as a former FCC commissioner got them in the door, she told Bloomberg BNA. But Scurato said they came away unconvinced that Pai is seriously weighing any prospect other than a change in the FCC’s regulatory classification of broadband and looser net neutrality rules.

“The chairman was just not receptive,” Scurato said. “He didn’t really engage or respond. In the end, I feel like he was pretty dismissive of our views.”

None of the other major public policy groups pushing to preserve the existing rules have asked to meet with Pai. One of the groups, Free Press, plans to ask for a meeting after the public comment period closes, spokeswoman Shiva Stella told Bloomberg BNA.

Court Challenge Looms

Under administrative law, Pai has to address substantive arguments raised on either side of the issue in any final net neutrality rules that go up for an FCC vote.

The lack of meetings with entities opposed to changing the rules shouldn’t hurt Pai in any court challenge, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Matthew Schettenhelm said.

“If Pai were to go ahead recklessly and just ignore the evidence from Title II supporters, they may have a case. But I suspect he’s smarter than that and we’ll get a very lengthy order that considers their arguments,” Schettenhelm said, referring to proponents of keeping the commission’s current regulatory classification of broadband.

[With assistance from Tommy Shen.]

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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