FCC backs away from market intervention, consumer roles

3 February 2017 by Steve Blum
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Goodbye to all that.

Wholesale broadband prices won’t be regulated and there will be no committees deciding which apps can bypass set top boxes and directly access cable company bit streams. That’s the practical effect of the decision by new Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai to pull two controversial proposed rules off of the list of items on circulation and under active consideration by commissioners.

Rules that would have set rates for some wholesale services and allow consumers to watch video programming on their own devices without renting a set top box were on the FCC’s agenda last fall, and nearly came to a vote. Push back on the set top box proposal – from democrats as well as republicans – and, it seems, simple dithering on wholesale broadband regulations delayed a decision, and Donald Trump’s surprise victory stopped it cold. According to a story by Amir Nasr in Morning Consult, Pai exercised his new authority and deep sixed both…

Pai removed the two items from circulation last week “for further review,” along with other items that were circulated by Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler, that never received a final vote, an FCC official confirmed in an email Monday.

“The items could be put back on circulation following modifications,” the official said, adding that the move is “typical” during a change of administration.

My bet is that any draft rules that would have regulated rates and terms for any kind of broadband service – wholesale or retail – are gone for good. That’s the kind of direct intervention in the marketplace – such as it is – that particularly get Pai and his fellow republican commissioner, Michael O’Rielly all riled up.

Set top box rules of some sort do have traction with some congressional republicans, but that doesn’t mean that Pai will take a run at writing them. It can be easily framed as a consumer protection issue, of the sort that could be kicked over the the Federal Trade Commission, as was advocated by the Trump team during the transition. If he truly intends to steer the FCC toward limited, technocratic oversight, rather than the mix-it-up-on-the-playing-field referee’s role that previous chairman Tom Wheeler craved, then Pai just made the first move in that direction.