Pai buries FCC hatchet with independent cable operators, vowing collaboration

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called cable operators’ mission to build digital infrastructure “the challenge of our time” in a keynote appearance on Thursday’s closing day of the American Cable Association’s annual summit in Washington.

The ACA represents about 850 small- and mid-sized independent operators serving some seven million households and businesses. The trade group’s president, Matthew Polka, interviewed Pai onstage.

The session had an air of urgency given the changes ripping through Washington and the media business under President Donald Trump. Pai’s predecessor as FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, took a more adversarial position and one that many in the cable business see as damaging to their businesses. He steered several initiatives endorsed by President Obama such as enforcing net neutrality and classifying cable and broadband providers as utilities under Title II regulations.

Pai, by contrast, is a supporter of lighter regulation, and has the voting record against many Wheeler-era moves to prove it.

“We don’t view you as an enemy,” Pai declared, “but rather someone we can work with to better enable our citizens to take advantage of digital opportunity.”

Marveled Polka, “Isn’t that refreshing to hear?” Attendees chuckled and applauded.

Polka asked Pai about the agency’s priorities at the outset of President Trump’s time in office, noting the flurry of action in the first two months of the new administration.

“We’re not going to sit back and check boxes,” Pai said. “Infrastructure investment is the No. 1 priority … Broadband is not a Republican issue or Democratic issue. It’s an American issue.”

Pai spoke of his recent travels outside of the Beltway and how they influence his thinking about regulation. In Youngstown, Ohio, he met the owner of an emerging virtual reality gaming business. The proprietor “didn’t want to move to Silicon Valley or New York,” Pai said. “But his business requires a lot of bandwidth. In yesteryear, he wouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing. But because of broadband, because of the efforts of people like you, he is able to thrive.”

Pai was pressed by Polka about the new FCC’s plans for Title II. “I oppose heavy-handed regulation inspired by Ma Bell in the Great Depression,” the chairman affirmed, without clearly outlining a position or plan. “What ACA members and the public should know is that we want a free and open Internet.” Added Polka, “Internet service providers have been called the bad guy and the gatekeepers for eight years” under Wheeler and Obama.

The session capped an ACA Summit characterized by candid discussion about the rebundling of cable, the incursion of stand-alone OTT services and how small- and mid-sized operators can turn those threats into opportunities.