How Can the FCC Make it Easier to Shop for Broadband?

Friday, January 28, 2022

Weekly Digest

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

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Kevin Taglang
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This week, the Federal Communications Commission launched a proceeding seeking public comment on creating a mechanism to ensure access to accurate, simple-to-understand information about broadband Internet access services. The aim is to enable consumers to comparison shop when choosing broadband services and providers that best meet their needs and match their budgets.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directs the FCC to adopt rules that will require the display of broadband consumer labels that include pricing information. The FCC is now proposing labels that disclose information about prices, introductory rates, data allowances, broadband speeds, and management practices, among other things. One label would be for “fixed” broadband service (think service from your local cable or telephone company); the other would be for mobile broadband.

FCC Broadband Labels
Source: FCC

The label for fixed broadband service (click here to enlarge the image above) includes 1) pricing; 2) monthly data allowance; 3) overage charges; 4) equipment fees; 5) other monthly fees; 6) one-time fees; and 7) early termination fees. The label for mobile broadband service (click here to enlarge the image above) includes 1) pricing; 2) when you exceed data allowance; 3) other included services/features; 4) other monthly fees; 5) one-time fees; 6) service contract terms; 7) early termination fees; and 8) “bring your own device” information.

Questions Questions Questions

The FCC has a number of questions about the proposed labels concerning the content, display location, accessibility, an existing transparency rule, enforcement and implementation issues. Here’s a quick look at what the FCC is asking the public to weigh in on.

Are Nutrition Labels the Best Model?

The proposed labels resemble what the Food and Drug Administration has prescribed for food products. Is this the best format for broadband labels? 

Do the Proposed Labels Include the Right Content?

The FCC wants to know if this content includes all the information consumers need to make informed decisions or if there is additional content to include. Should labels include services bundled with broadband such as video, telephony, or mobile services? Include any information about the quality of the bundled services? Is there additional content that should be conveyed? Should the labels include information about whether there are any limitations when consumers use multiple devices on the same broadband plan? Should the labels make clear when the offered rate is contingent on consumer consent to particular restrictions, e.g., paperless billing, electronic payment, rental of equipment, and/or enrollment in related services? 

How Should Labels be Shared with Consumers?

The FCC proposes to require broadband internet access service providers to display the labels at the point of sale in a manner that is easily accessible to consumers. For example, labels should appear on providers’ websites. But how? Is including a link to the label sufficient? How should the labels be displayed at other points of sale, such as at retail locations, on apps, on online platforms, on other digital locations, and on telemarketing calls? Should ISPs provide hard copies of the labels in retail locations? Should their telemarketing representatives email, or otherwise make available to, consumers labels before consumers make a purchase? Should labels be included in bills or other communications?

Importantly, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires and the Web Accessibility Initiative provides guidance on ensuring printed and online information is accessible and usable for individuals with disabilities. The FCC asks how to best ensure broadband labels are accessible.

What about Promotional Rates?

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directs the FCC to create labels that include information regarding whether the offered price is an introductory rate and, if so, the price the consumer will be required to pay following the introductory period. Do the proposed labels satisfy this requirement? Will the information be easy to understand?

Should Labels Mention the Affordable Connectivity Program?

The FCC also asks whether and how to include information about the new Affordable Connectivity Program in the broadband labels. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires broadband providers to notify consumers about the existence of the Affordable Connectivity Program and how to enroll in the program when a customer subscribes to, or renews a subscription to, an internet service offering of a participating provider. Should the FCC require that the broadband labels include information about the Affordable Connectivity Program? To what extent can broadband labels be used to promote awareness of the program and how to enroll? How might those disclosures be presented on the labels?

What about Bundled Services?

Broadband service offerings can include numerous characteristics based on differing service levels, features, add-ons, consumer location, and other factors. Should labels include services bundled with broadband such as video, telephony, or mobile services? Include any information about the quality of the bundled services?

Changes to Service

What happens when a broadband provider changes its terms of service? Should the provider be required to notify consumers? How? And how quickly? Should the FCC require that the notifications be sent in advance of the changes taking effect? If so, how far in advance?

How Can Broadband Labels be Optimized for Comparison Shopping and Pricing Data?

Congress has two aims in requiring broadband consumer labels. The first is to enable consumers to comparison shop when choosing broadband services and providers. The second is to facilitate annual data collection on the price and subscription rates of each internet service offering of a participating provider under the Affordable Connectivity Program. Given these goals, the FCC asks if the labels should be provided in a machine-readable format with standard, labeled fields to ensure that third parties and consumers can more readily compare across multiple providers. The FCC seeks public input on these two alternatives.

  1. The FCC is proposing to collect all the broadband-label data, with each plan having a unique identifier.
  2. Alternatively, the FCC could require broadband internet access service providers to make information about each plan available in a machine-readable format via an Application Program Interface so the commission can access the broadband-label information for any Affordable Connectivity Program plan.

Implementation Issues

The FCC assumes it will give broadband providers six months after it adopts the proposed rules.[1] Is six months long enough for both large and smaller providers? Should the FCC adopt a different implementation timeline or temporary exemption for smaller providers to allow them more time to come into compliance with the labels’ requirements? Are there alternative ways to minimize the economic impact on smaller service providers?

Equity Concerns

The FCC continues its efforts to advance digital equity for all—including for people of color, persons with disabilities, persons who live in rural or Tribal areas, and others who are or have been historically underserved, marginalized, or adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality. The FCC invites comment on how any broadband consumer labels can advance equity in the provision of and access to digital communications services and products for all people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability. Specifically, the FCC seeks comment on how its proposals may promote or inhibit advances in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, as well the scope of the Commission’s relevant legal authority. 

The FCC also seeks comment on whether and how the broadband consumer labels can be used to facilitate equal access to broadband Internet access services. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires that the FCC adopt rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access services. Are there particular label requirements that would support FCC efforts in this regard?

Broadband Transparency Rule

Broadband internet access service providers must publicly disclose accurate information regarding their network management practices, performance characteristics, and commercial terms of their services to enable consumers to make informed choices regarding the purchase and use of such services and entrepreneurs and other small businesses to develop, market, and maintain internet offerings.

The FCC’s proposed rule assumes that display of the broadband labels would be necessary for compliance with the general transparency rule above. The FCC seeks comment on the interplay between the existing transparency rule and the proposed broadband labels. Should display of the proposed labels fully satisfy the current transparency rule? In what ways does the transparency rule require disclosures beyond those in the proposed labels? Alternatively, do the broadband consumer labels require disclosures beyond the scope of the existing transparency rule? Will the broadband consumer labels’ requirements necessitate further changes to the FCC’s transparency rule?  

Enforcement Issues

In 2017, the FCC classified broadband internet access service as an “information service” and restored broadband consumer protection authority to the Federal Trade Commission. Here, the FCC asks about its authority to enforce the broadband consumer label rules. Moreover, the FCC seeks public comment on how to evaluate and enforce the accuracy of the information presented in the broadband consumer labels. How can the FCC verify the accuracy of the information that a broadband provider uses in a broadband consumer label? How best can the FCC confirm that any variance between the disclosed performance metrics and actual performance as experienced by individual consumers is or is not consistent with normal network variation? How should the FCC enforce against inaccuracies in the provided information?

What’s Next

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires the FCC to adopt broadband consumer label rules by November 2022. This week’s action is just one important step before consumers actually start seeing the labels. The law also directs the FCC to conduct a series of public hearings to help inform the labeling requirements. Stay tuned for updates.

Notes:

  1. Not to put too fine a point on it, but six months after the rules are published in the Federal Register and approved by the Office of Management and Budget.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

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Upcoming Events

Feb 2—Executive Session (Senate Commerce Committee)

Feb 2—The Reconnect Program Webinar for Tribal Applicants (Department of Agriculture)

Feb 3—Finding the Right Frequency: 5G Deployment & Aviation Safety (House Transportation Committee)

Feb 3—University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Alumni Awards

Feb 8—The ReConnect Application Workshop (Department of Agriculture)

Feb 8—Key Legal Issues: From Plan Implementation Through Ongoing Operation and Regulatory Compliance (International Municipal Lawyers Association)

Feb 9—Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Programs Public Virtual Listening Session #4 (National Telecommunications and Information Administration)

Feb 17—Future-focused economic development in rural America (Center for Rural Innovation)

Feb 18—February 2022 Open FCC Meeting

Feb 22—Technological Advisory Council Meeting (FCC)

Feb 23—Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Programs Public Virtual Listening Session #5 (NTIA

Feb 24—Disability Advisory Committee (FCC)

Feb 28—State of the Net Conference 2022 (Internet Education Foundation)

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