Like the plumbing that runs through our homes or the heat that radiates through them, broadband internet has become an essential public service over the past two decades.
And over the past two years, it has helped millions of people access crucial public health information, do their jobs, or stay in touch with family and friends. But subscribing to and dealing with broadband companies, which include giants like Xfinity and Verizon, can be a maddening process and cost people hundreds of dollars in hidden or changing fees.
It’s a problem we all know about, but the situation could improve this year thanks to a new law approved last month by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Under this new law, broadband companies would be required to provide easy-to-read information about their services to improve transparency. Although the labels don’t yet exist in their final form, if and when they do, consumers can expect to see variables such as one-time charges and monthly charges presented as clearly as the calories in a serving of cereals.
It’s a move that Claire Park, a policy analyst at the Open Technology Institute in New America, says is much needed in the broadband provider landscape. “Internet service providers are notoriously intransparent about pricing, speed or other terms of service, resulting in high prices for broadband nationwide,” Park says via email.
“The speeds and prices advertised by companies often don’t match the service people actually receive, or their monthly bills,” she continues. “The federally mandated Broadband Nutrition Label will require companies to share exactly how much they charge for exactly what types of services…and ensure there are no shady deals like pricing or discrimination in the quality of services based on race, income level and other factors.”
In a statement on the proposed changes, FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel likened them to nutrition labels in a grocery store.
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It’s an analogy that Tejas Narechania, faculty director at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, says is true. Certainly, these broadband labels will focus less on the nutritional value of broadband services (your internet is free of saturated fats and added sugars) and more on providing a standardized framework for consumers to compare services.
“The FCC relied on the FDA for guidance in developing the label, [but] of course, there is no nutritional information,” Narechania says via email. “But both labels present relevant information in a clear and consistent format, and both highlight certain prominent elements (calories, price), while also presenting more detailed information for those who are interested (magnesium content or network management practices).”
As for what these labels will actually look like, the FCC attempted to design them (see page 15 and following) in 2016, when the proposal first made its way onto the desks of policymakers. According to this mockup, wideband labels can look a lot like the nutrition labels we already know, from the rectangular layout to the black and white color scheme. But in this case, the calories or carbs would be replaced by categories such as “Monthly charge for a monthly plan”, “One-time charge”, and “Typical”. [performance] latency.”
Beyond the transparency these labels hope to provide, Narechania says they could also help promote competition among broadband providers. This, in turn, could lower prices for consumers and help reduce levels of fraud by providers (such as promising services or performance they fail to deliver), which Park says could be a big win for users, especially the most disenfranchised. by these companies.
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“We have seen throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that unequal access and lack of affordable internet service is not just a nuisance, but a matter of life and death,” Park says. “Seniors, veterans, low-income students, black households, people of color, Indigenous people are just a few communities that already face economic, social and political marginalization and therefore face barriers even more important to Internet access. Price transparency along with speed is absolutely essential to making the internet more affordable and meeting people’s needs. »
However, while these new labels and competition will benefit many consumers, Narechania says they will not unilaterally solve the problems created by broadband service providers in the United States. subscribe,” he said. “But I must recognize that the new labeling rules are not going to create new competition in unserved or underserved markets.”
The throttling will particularly affect broadband users in rural parts of the country who already cannot access reliable broadband service or have only one provider to choose from. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 28% of rural Americans do not have broadband service in their homes. Similarly, a 2020 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that 83.3 million Americans have access to only one broadband service provider.
So while new labels could offer more transparency about that provider’s pricing, Narechania says they won’t necessarily offer users better options. Nevertheless, he thinks they will have a positive impact, at least to some extent.
The new law is not yet done. While it received initial approval last month, it has now entered its comment period which will last until November 15, during which lawmakers will deliberate and decide on the final form the law will take. If all goes well, this law could be implemented by the end of 2022, closing the chapter on a decision now three administrations in the works.
“The nutrition label is a huge, long-awaited step forward in giving people easy access to improved and affordable internet service in this country,” Park says. “But of course there is always more to do when it comes to holding companies accountable for their practices. Going forward, we would like to see more federal scrutiny of mergers and acquisitions in the broadband market that threaten to further consolidate the playing field and make it harder for people to have as many options as possible for internet service.