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Wireless and drone execs praised President Trump as he pledged to cut down regulations

For the likes of AT&T and PrecisionHawk, the face time with the president offered a chance to push their agendas.

President Trump attends the American Leadership in Emerging Technology Event Olivier Douliery-Pool / Getty

Some of the nation’s leading wireless giants and drone makers offered effusive praise of President Donald Trump on Thursday as they lobbied his administration to eliminate the federal regulations that stand in the way of their businesses.

As part of the White House’s five-day focus on technology, Trump gathered executives from those industries — including AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen and a number of venture capitalists — for a morning of brainstorming sessions devoted to spurring new investments in emerging fields.

For the likes of Stephenson, the public audience with Trump offered an opportunity to continue nudging the U.S. government — including in a scheduled, private session with the leader of the Federal Communications Commission earlier Thursday — to cut back on restrictions that make it difficult for AT&T and other telecom giants to grow their footprint and deploy the new technologies, such as 5G wireless.

Speaking with Recode later Thursday, Marcelo Claure, the chief executive of Sprint, said that he and others in his industry had emphasized to Trump that the government must help them deploy new tools like small cells — essentially, mini cell towers that improve wireless connectivity.

“It takes one year to get a permit, but it takes one hour to install it,” said Claure, whose company has embarked on a nationwide campaign to deploy such devices. “We heard him say loud and clear we have to fix this.”

Trump, for his part, promised Thursday to cut down on “too many years of excessive government regulation” to enable innovators and investments to offer new cutting-edge tools in health care, science, medicine and communication. “We have had regulation that's been so bad, so out of line that it's really hurt our country,” he said.

The high-profile meeting with Trump is the latest in a series of White House events this week focused on the way the U.S. government uses technology and the policy challenges facing the industry.

On Monday, Trump gathered the top executives from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other leading tech companies, and he asked for their help in modernizing the dated inner workings of the U.S. government. Privately, those tech giants also called on Trump to proffer a number of reforms that would help them sell more of their devices and services to the feds, according to about a dozen sources who later spoke with Recode. And they asked his administration to refrain from restricting high-skilled immigration.

A day later, those same companies dispatched their leading lobbying organizations to ask the White House’s top officials for tax reform. And Trump on Wednesday then committed during a speech in Iowa to expanding internet access in the country’s hardest-to-reach rural areas, though the White House repeatedly has declined to provide details.

On Thursday, the focus was emerging technology — as well as the investors that support those cutting-edge tools. Some of the venture capitalists in attendance came from firms like 500 Startups, Revolution and Lightspeed Ventures — but many other prominent funders that had been invited, including those from Sequoia Capital and Accel, declined to participate.

Those assembled in the East Room, however, cheered on Trump, who took special care in his opening remarks to note his administration’s work to undo some of the elements of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Top drone manufacturers, meanwhile, called on the president to clear the skies for their unmanned aerial craft. PrecisionHawk’s Chasen, for example, asked Trump to address restrictions that are “limiting what drone technology can do.” With more federal permissions, he said, “we can stay competitive with other countries.”

Joining Chasen were drone leaders like Ben Marcus, the CEO of AirMap; Jaz Banga, the chief executive of Airspace Inc; and George Matthew, the leader of Kespry, which demonstrated one of its drones to Trump.

Before sitting down with the president, though, they also spoke with their regulators at the FAA and the Department of Transportation. And they asked their federal overseers for greater freedom in where they can operate their drones, continuing their push for the government to relax rules that require unmanned craft only to be operated in certain areas, during daylight and within a pilot’s line of site.

“The one thing I’m really fixated on is a company like Tesla, which can deploy autonomous cars on roadways, next to bicycles and pedestrians ... but you can’t put a few-pound drone above someone’s head,” said Gregory McNeal, the co-founder of Airmap, in an interview. He said he felt it’s “low-hanging fruit” in this administration to make drones “more like the [Department of Transportation] and autonomous vehicles.”

For his part, AT&T’s Stephenson joined a group of top executives from companies like Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile. At a time when the FCC is looking to deregulate the telecom sector — including by scrapping the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules — Stephenson took special care to note his industry’s investment in the United States.

That’s one of the major issues in the debate over the effects of the Obama-era open internet rules, which subject internet providers to utility-like regulation. But Stephenson never publicly mentioned the open internet order. Claure, exiting the meeting, confirmed that so-called Title II rules did not come up in private meetings.

Seated next to Trump, Stephenson still stressed his industry is “leading the world” in deploying the next generation of wireless tools, called 5G. In a later demo, the AT&T chief responded to a question from Trump by acknowledging the difficulties that his industry faces in obtaining permits from local governments to deploy their technologies. Trump responded with a pledge to send a “strong letter” to those state and federal regulators.

Mike Sievert, the chief operating officer of T-Mobile, told Trump that the country is on the “precipice” with that technology — and whether it can be used in a way that powers self-driving cars or drones, or other devices in the so-called Internet of Things would depend on “the position that the government takes.” And Verizon’s president, John Stratton, similarly praised the president for his “focus on U.S. job creation and U.S. leadership in these industries.”

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