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FCC's Pai targets deregulation, broadband

What will new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai tackle in the short term? Reviewing rules deemed burdensome and incentivizing broadband expansion, he said at the American Cable Association Summit in Washington on March 30.

"Infrastructure investment of course is the No. 1 priority, so we are taking a look at all the regulations on the books and trying to figure out if any of them are holding back innovation and investment. If they are, we want to look at revising or appealing them," Pai said.

Broadband is high on the list of what Pai acknowledged is his "pretty aggressive agenda." One of the first things Pai did after becoming FCC chairman was to allocate $170 million in funding to New York to support the state's New NY Broadband Program, which aims to bring high-speed Internet services to unserved rural areas. With the federal subsidy, the state program will now reach $670 million in total funding. "I want to send a signal: Broadband is not a Republican issue. It's not a Democrat issue. It's an American issue," Pai said.

As the agency works to modernize its Universal Service Fund program, "we want to make sure cable has a chance to compete" and be part of the program, said Pai. "We think every technology should have a fair and full chance" to participate, he said.

Another item on Pai's to-do list is the creation of Gigabit Opportunity Zones, which he first proposed in September 2016. Any area where the average household income falls below 75% of the national median could qualify for the program, which features tax incentives for gigabit broadband providers.

Lawmakers briefed on the initiative seemed to like the idea, Pai said. "I am hopeful that as the Congress tackles the infrastructure plan they will think about this idea." He envisioned small cable operators playing a big role in the program.

Pai also wants to remove a condition on Charter Communications Inc.'s acquisition of Time Warner Cable that requires Charter to build out broadband to 1 million homes that are outside of the company's footprint. The condition would result in overbuilding broadband in areas already served by many independent cable operators, Pai said. The proposal has already been circulated at the commission.

Title II net neutrality rules are among the regulations Pai is expected to repeal. The chairman and his fellow GOP commissioner Michael O'Rielly have been vocal opponents of the rules, passed under previous FCC head Tom Wheeler. Pai didn't share further thoughts on net neutrality at the summit beyond reiterating that he believes the right regulatory approach to an open internet should be a light-touch one.