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FCC head defends net neutrality policy in Canadian speech

Recently appointed chairman of the FCC Ajit Pai, right, has been a vocal critic of U.S. policies on net neutrality.

James MacDonald/Bloomberg News

In an address to representatives from across the Canadian telecom industry, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission defended his stance on net neutrality, an issue on which the two countries have recently diverged.

Ajit Pai, who U.S. President Donald Trump appointed in January to lead the FCC, delivered a brief, prerecorded video address on Wednesday to the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto. In his speech, Mr. Pai outlined his reasons for proposing to reverse rules that classify Internet providers as a public utility.

Those regulations were passed under the previous FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and they gave the commission the legal authority to enforce rules around net neutrality – the general principle that all Internet traffic should be treated the same.

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But Mr. Pai is seeking to undo those rules, saying he favours "a light-touch approach to regulation," a common theme of Mr. Trump's administration, which has also rolled back regulations related to the environment, education and financial industry and introduced a rule requiring two regulations be cut for each new regulation issued.

Related: U.S. telecom adviser criticizes Canada's approach to Internet regulations

Mr. Pai says the net neutrality rules – known as the Open Internet Order, which includes provisions preventing Internet fast lanes, as well as blocking or throttling traffic – have led to lower investment in broadband networks and imposed an unmanageable compliance burden on smaller Internet providers.

The FCC chairman told the Canadian audience that a group of 22 Internet providers with 1,000 customers or fewer have said the order, "had slowed, if not halted, the development and deployment of innovative new offerings, which would benefit [their] customers. And they said that [the rules] hung like a black cloud over their businesses."

Mr. Pai has faced criticism in the U.S. for his stance on the Open Internet Order, with many pointing out that despite his claims of reduced investment since the rules were passed in 2015, the country's largest Internet providers routinely tell shareholders they continue to spend on networks in a battle to remain competitive.

He says he supports a free and open Internet, but consumer advocacy groups say without the rules treating broadband providers as a public utility, there would be no legal framework with which to enforce net neutrality rules.

Canada is moving in the opposite direction on Internet policy, with well-established legislation that prevents Internet providers from giving themselves or others an "undue preference" and rules introduced in 2009 to limit Internet traffic management practices such as slowing down or blocking content.

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In April, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) banned the practice of "zero-rating" data charges, a move that stemmed from complaints over Videotron Ltd.'s Unlimited Music streaming service, which allowed certain high-paying subscribers to listen to music services on their smartphones without making a dent in their monthly data cap.

In contrast, the FCC under Mr. Pai has shut down an investigation into zero-rating practices by wireless carriers T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T.

The FCC voted in May to consider a proposal to reverse the Open Internet Order, launching a public comment process that will play out over several months.

"I enter this process with an open mind, and we will go where the facts lead us, but I'm confident that this move puts us on the path to more broadband infrastructure investment," Mr. Pai said in his speech Wednesday.

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About the Author
Telecom Reporter

Christine Dobby covers the Canadian telecom industry for The Globe and Mail. Before joining the Globe in May 2014 she reported for the Financial Post for three years, most recently writing about telecom and media. She has also reported for the Toronto Star and New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. More

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