What the Biden administration can learn from Ajit Pai’s FCC

The Biden administration's goals for internet infrastructure would be best pursued using economic incentives rather than heavy-handed directives, argues Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

What the Biden administration can learn from Ajit Pai’s FCC

FCC chairman Ajit Pai gave the private sector plenty of latitude. Will that continue under the Biden administration after Pai steps down?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai prepares to step down on Jan. 20, there are more than a few lessons the incoming Biden administration could learn from his tenure at the agency. Perhaps the most important lesson is that each of the new administration's goals for internet infrastructure — bridging the digital divide, universal broadband, rapid deployment of 5G — is best pursued using a regulatory approach that emphasizes economic incentives over heavy-handed directives.

Since March 1, internet usage has increased by roughly 30%, yet our networks have not buckled under pandemic-era pressures. Unlike much of Europe, we have not seen our access or speeds limited. This level of resilience is no accident. Under Pai, the private sector has had the appropriate incentives and latitude to do what it does best: invest in opportunity and innovate. The regulatory strategy and decisions got us to where we are today.

Many did not expect this outcome. When Pai's FCC repealed net neutrality two years ago, there was a flood of concern and consternation that this repeal would enable opportunistic and malicious internet providers to throttle access or slow down speeds. No pervasive bad behavior emerged. Instead, by lifting these regulatory burdens, the FCC helped spur a surge of private investment in broadband deployment, not only connecting more Americans in hard-to-reach or underserved communities, but also supporting more nimble, resilient networks that can handle rapid changes and growth in internet demand. At the same time, broadband prices continue to decline even as speeds continue to increase.

In the presence of this hands-off regulatory approach, most Americans today are able to telework, learn online, and participate in remote health care consultations with little to no fuss. To be sure, we are far from finally closing the digital divide, but the current FCC has left us with a blueprint of the most efficient way to meet this goal and others for our internet infrastructure.

That blueprint is straightforward: Solutions to the connectivity and economic challenges we face today — from getting and keeping our students and educators online during the pandemic, to expanding remote access to health care delivery, to expanding the reach of high-speed connections — can only be sustained when the economics make sense. We need a rigorous, data-driven approach to solving these challenges. The Pai FCC has pursued this path, often on a bipartisan basis, and in the process has helped to boost connectivity in underserved communities, expand economic opportunity and — unknowingly — prepare our country to navigate an unprecedented public health and economic crisis.

The next FCC chair and the Biden administration as a whole should not abandon this light-touch approach; they should double down on it. In order to finish the job of connecting all Americans to high-speed internet service, the incoming FCC should avoid interfering in the marketplace and burdening companies with unnecessary restrictions. As my colleague Jennifer Huddleston has explained, this is the exact approach that we should continue taking with regard to development and deployment of 5G.

5G has the potential to bring high-speed connections to the hardest-to-reach places, but the federal government is considering building and running a single national 5G network — the exact opposite approach of the Pai FCC's approach. Taking this kind of single-contractor approach to 5G, as Huddleston mentioned, is likely to be costlier for taxpayers, take significantly longer to deploy and undermine the competitive system we have today in which multiple actors are working to develop and deploy 5G and related technologies. In a truly competitive marketplace, consumers benefit from greater choice, while businesses are rewarded for their ability to provide cutting-edge services. The future of 5G and the emerging technologies it will enable are full of promise, and it would be a shame to throttle the development and deployment of 5G when our country has all the right tools to succeed.

To swiftly and meaningfully expand broadband and 5G connectivity, the new administration must continue to rely on the tested economics that has encouraged innovation and investment across our entire internet infrastructure. As the transition team prepares for a new FCC Chair, they must remember that the United States built a robust and innovative digital economy by limiting government interference. It would be foolish to abandon that strategy now.

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