Senators grill FCC's Pai over AT&T acquisition and net neutrality

The US Senate has questioned Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai over the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger, and the future of net neutrality rules.

It was Pai’s first appearance before Congress since he was appointed as FCC head by President Donald Trump in January, with senators taking him to task over his decision not to launch an FCC review into AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition plans.

Pai turned down the opportunity to launch a review into whether the deal was in the public interest, saying it was not necessary because there would be no transfer of licenses involved.

Senator Brian Schatz questioned Pai’s decision, prompting the FCC chair to say he’d allow the regulator’s lawyers to assess it and share their findings with the Senate Commerce Committee, according to a report from The Hill.

Democrat senators also encouraged Pai, who has just been renominated for his position on the FCC board, to uphold net neutrality laws passed by predecessor Tom Wheeler.

Pai has been a vocal opponent of the rules, which have led to several legal disputes with telcos including AT&T and Verizon, previously calling them “a mistake”.

Industry claims that the introduction of the rules, which dictate whether operators and carriers can prioritise certain internet traffic or data over others, would stifle the broadband market appeared to be false, according to Senator Cory Brooker.

"A lot of gloom and doom was predicted if this was to happen, but clearly, the sky's not fallen," he said. "Businesses have continued to innovate in this space."

Pai didn’t give a strong response on net neutrality, but did defend the first six weeks of his first six weeks as chairman.

Pai said: “In the first six weeks of my Chairmanship, we have hit the ground running. As we move forward, I hope we can continue to work together on a bipartisan basis to close the digital divide, promote innovation, protect consumers and public safety, and improve the FCC’s processes and procedures.”