Calling the Open Internet Order adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) two years ago a "mistake," new FCC chairman Ajit Pai today told attendees at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that the agency intends to return to a "light-touch approach" to regulations. MWC 2017, running this week from Feb. 27-March 2, is the mobile industry's largest annual conference and expo.

Supporters of the FCC's 2015 order say such comments are a sign that Net neutrality is under attack. They are vowing to fight efforts to roll back the order, which established "clear, bright-line rules" against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of content delivery by Internet service providers.

Pai, who was appointed by President Donald Trump to succeed outgoing FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, has been vocal in his opposition to the Net neutrality order. After it was adopted, Pai called the order a "heavy-handed solution that won't work for a problem that doesn't exist." Since taking the reins at the FCC, Pai has already led a number of reversals on measures adopted under Wheeler, including a stop to the investigations into "zero-rating" offerings and a stay on new broadband privacy rules that were approved in October.

Net Neutrality and Infrastructure Investment

"[T]wo years ago, the United States deviated from our successful, light-touch approach," Pai said in his talk at the MWC. "The FCC decided to apply last-century, utility-style regulation to today's broadband networks . . . This reversal wasn't necessary to solve any problem; we were not living in a digital dystopia . . . Two years later, it has become evident that the FCC made a mistake."

He added that the Open Internet Order, "injected tremendous uncertainty into the broadband market. And uncertainty is the enemy of growth." The adoption of Net neutrality rules led to the first non-recession decline in broadband investment across the U.S., and such investments remain lower today than they were in 2015, according to Pai.

Others, however, have disputed such assertions by Pai. In an analysis last year of post-Open Internet Order telecom spending, the not-for-profit subsidiary of Consumer Reports found that AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon all increased their capital expenditures in 2015.

The Internet & Television Association industry group reported similar investment growth, noting that "since 1996, cable has invested over $250 billion in capital infrastructure."

Differing Views on Open Internet

In his comments at MWC 2017, Pai said the FCC will "preserve a free and open Internet," but will do so through light-touch regulation. "Going forward, the FCC will not focus on denying Americans free data or issuing heavy-handed decrees inspired by the distant past," he said. "Instead, we will seek to advance the networks of the future and the innovative new products and services that take advantage of those networks."

In its 100-day plan issued last month in response to Trump administration actions, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights organization, said it was "prepared to fight efforts to undo the Open Internet Order" and other consumer protections that had been adopted by the FCC.

Free Press, another supporter of Net neutrality, has launched a similar campaign and yesterday held a briefing in Washington, D.C., about efforts to defend the Open Internet Order.

Meanwhile, in an interview with CNN today, former FCC chairman Wheeler said changes being adopted under the Trump administration are "going the way I feared."

In remarks to The Aspen Institute a week before Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, Wheeler said that the Open Internet was the most powerful engine for innovation, economic growth and job creation in existence today.

"As we choose our path forward, we need to remember how we got here," Wheeler said. "We got here with smart government, not absent government. We got here with a government that was pro-competition, not pro-incumbent. We got here thanks to policies rooted in reality, not ideology."