What Are Broadband Labels and Are They Useful?

To help consumers better understand broadband options, Congress has mandated that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revamp its concept of broadband labels, with a goal of providing more detailed info about competitive offerings from different providers.

This revamp mandate was passed as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and to understand what it means as well as what it seeks to accomplish, one must first understand what broadband labels are, as well as their history. The FCC first came up with the concept of broadband labels in 2009, before eventually creating the templates for broadband providers to use in 2016. The idea is that providers use these templates to share information like the base monthly cost of broadband, activation fees, optional monthly charges, discounts and other details regarding performance and reliability with consumers.

Since 2016, however, the idea was largely put on hold and never fully actualized — until now, with the new mandate seeking to change that.

SO, WHAT CHANGED?

In short, the pandemic.

Last year, President Biden signed the bipartisan IIJA, investing $550 billion toward improving the country’s roads, bridges, water infrastructure, resilience and high-speed Internet capacity. One of the provisions of the IIJA was for the FCC to create updated broadband labels that describe broadband products to customers, along with regulations for Internet service providers on how to display these new labels.

The deadline for that provision was one year, meaning the FCC could potentially announce its decision as soon as Nov. 15, 2022, barring some sort of delay.

“The pandemic changed everything,” said Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association. “Everybody’s been forced to have to care about broadband, and that’s what kind of pushed it to the top of lawmakers’ agendas and why we’re putting so much investment into infrastructure and laws like the IIJA to get every American connected.”

HOW WILL THIS IMPACT CONSUMERS?

According to Jon Peha, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, consumers want more information to make an informed choice. At least, that’s what a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab Security and Privacy Institute found.

Peha, a co-author of the study and former chief technologist for the FCC, said, “There are a lot of people on both sides of this argument, who have been discussing what consumers need, but nobody has asked consumers in a rigorous kind of way. So, we launched this study, which I believe is the first large-scale study to find out what consumers really want.”

In a nutshell, some of the findings include the following: consumers want more clarification regarding prices, existing broadband label proposals come across as confusing, and lastly, consumers want more information about performance and reliability.

Out of those three concepts, the latter is unique because it isn’t something the FCC has really considered before, Peha said.

“Internet service providers today will typically tell you the performance you can get under optimal conditions,” Peha said. “What consumers tell us they actually want is not the best possible performance, but they want to know what typical performance, normal performance and well below normal performance looks like.”

As a result, the study used consumer feedback to create a new broadband label to compare against the FCC’s 2016 proposal.

Some of the main differences between the two are having information about performance, reliability and network management practices, which Peha said refers to Internet service providers throttling traffic to degrade consumers’ service deliberately.

Other additions include simplifying the numbers when it comes to the overall cost of obtaining broadband. However, despite these findings, there still seems to be pushback from some Internet service providers.

WHAT’S NEXT?

According to industry experts, the FCC will have to decide how to balance the needs of consumers and ISPs.

“How do you get consumers what they need without requiring too much information to the point that it makes it too complicated for service providers?” Bolton said. “Internet service providers are not going to want to paint themselves in a corner, so they want to keep things as broad as possible.”

On the flip side, he added, “It’s just as important that consumers know what they are getting.”

Another concern is how will these new labels consider consumers’ varying needs.

“The problem is that the information that’s relevant to one user is not the same as another user,” Peha said. “For example, if you do a lot of video conferencing, you care about different things than if you play online games, or if you get a consumer discount and have a student discount with your own equipment, you get a different price, so to give everybody what they want, it does mean there’s a lot of information.”

A couple of ways to address this, Peha said, is that the FCC could make information shared through the labels available to third parties or create layered labels with more information.

The first option would open the door for third parties to create personalized tools for individuals to navigate any data shared through the new broadband labels.

For example, “some organizations like Consumer Reports or other publications could get the raw data and make something that has all the information and then personalize it by asking the person looking for specific information to answer certain questions,” Peha said.

Another option is offering layered labels to show consumers the information they want based on what they are looking for instead of having just one label.

In the end, though, the FCC has the final say.

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