Jan 26, 2022 - Technology

Coming: "Nutrition labels" for internet service

An example of the FCC's 2016 broadband label

An example broadband label from the FCC in 2016. Source: FCC

The FCC will vote Thursday on a proposal to make companies cough up the details of their internet speeds and prices in easy-to-read "broadband nutrition labels."

Why it matters: The communications regulator is newly flexing its muscles over cable and telecom companies in an attempt to make it easier for consumers to comparison shop for high-speed internet.

Driving the news: The FCC proposal would require internet service providers to create labels with information about prices, promotional rates, internet speeds, data allowances and other details.

  • It's an idea the commission has kicked around for years, going so far as to create a voluntary label in the last year of the Obama administration. The recent infrastructure law requires the agency to enact final rules for the label by Nov. 15, 2022.
  • The idea is meant to address long-standing consumer complaints about confusing promotional prices and the difficulty of comparing internet providers' offerings in an apples-to-apples way.
  • If the measure is approved, the agency will seek comment on its plans, including where the information should be displayed and how the commission should enforce accuracy on the labels, before finalizing the regulations.

What they're saying: "This is something that is an everyday necessity, and consumers deserve some real, basic information," Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, told Axios.

  • Cable industry group NCTA was involved in the development of the label in 2016 and said it would work with the FCC again on implementation.
  • “Cable operators are committed to providing consumers with relevant information about broadband services," an NCTA spokesperson said in a statement.

The other side: “We agree with the commission that consumers should have the information they need to shop between competing providers — and they already do,” USTelecom said to Axios in a statement.

  • “We look forward to working on these measures, but the key is not to impose rules that are burdensome or counterproductive to consumers and providers.”

Context: The FCC's vote comes less than a week after chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel circulated a measure to her fellow commissioners that would ban practices she says reduce competition among internet service providers in apartment buildings.

  • If adopted, the measure would prohibit internet providers from entering into exclusive revenue sharing agreements with apartment landlords, and force them to disclose any exclusive marketing arrangements they have with building owners.
  • The goal is to ensure that apartment dwellers have more choice when it comes to buying internet service, and with more competition, lower prices.

Between the lines: Rosenworcel will need the support of at least one of the Republican commissioners at the agency to advance both the broadband label and the apartment building items, as the Senate has yet to confirm a Biden nominee, Gigi Sohn, as the third Democrat on the five-member commission.

  • GOP commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington declined comment, but it's unlikely Rosenworcel would put the broadband label — which is required by law — up for a vote at the agency's public meeting without the support to approve it.

The big picture: Both the internet proposals were part of Biden's executive order in July on increasing competition throughout the economy.

  • Rosenworcel this week attended a White House meeting as a member of the competition council, with Biden noting that administration officials have met each deadline of the executive order so far.
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