Here's How the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Will Make it Easier to Shop for Broadband Service
Tuesday, January 3, 2022
Here's How the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Will Make it Easier to Shop for Broadband Service
On November 14, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules requiring broadband internet service providers to display, in the form of labels, information regarding their service plans. The goal is to provide information that empowers consumers to choose services that best meet their needs and match their budgets and ensures that they are not surprised by unexpected charges or service quality that falls short of their expectations.
Here we look at the FCC's new requirements and next steps in improving consumer access to clear, easy-to-understand, and accurate information that is central to a well-functioning marketplace and encourages competition, innovation, low prices, and high-quality services. (Once final regulatory steps are completed, these rules will likely become effective by the end of 2023.)
Overview of the Rules
The FCC's new rules will require broadband internet service providers to display, at the point of sale, a broadband consumer label containing critical information about the provider’s service offerings. This includes information about pricing, introductory rates, data allowances, performance metrics, and whether the provider participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program (which provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible low-income households and up to $75 per month for low-income households on qualifying Tribal lands). The rules require that providers display the label for each stand-alone broadband internet access service they currently offer to new customers for purchase, and that the label link to other important information such as network management practices, privacy policies, and other educational materials. The requirements for the label’s format and display location are to ensure consumers can make side-by-side comparisons of various service offerings from an individual provider or from alternative providers—something essential for making informed decisions. Labels must be accessible for people with disabilities and for non-English speakers. And the FCC is enabling third parties to easily analyze information and help consumers with their purchase decisions by requiring providers to make the label content available in a machine-readable format.
The FCC defines broadband internet access service as a mass-market retail service by wire or radio that provides the capability to transmit data to and receive data from all or substantially all internet endpoints, including any capabilities that are incidental to and enable the operation of the communications service, but excluding dial-up internet access service.
Where Consumers Will Find Broadband Labels
All broadband Internet access service providers will display broadband consumer labels at the “point of sale.” This means at the moment a consumer begins to investigate and compare broadband service plans available to them at their location—and both on providers' websites and any other channels through which their service is sold, including retail locations and over the phone.
Providers must display the actual label—not simply an icon or a link to the label—in close proximity to the associated plan advertisement.
Providers that use alternate sales channels—like retail locations or over the phone—must make the label available to consumers at each point of sale. Although providers are not necessarily required to provide a hard copy of the label in all instances, if the provider cannot ensure the consumer will be able to access the label either with an Internet connection at home or in the retail location, it must make the label available in hard copy.
After purchasing broadband service, consumers should be able to easily access and review the terms of their existing plans to ensure they are receiving the services and price they agreed to at the time of purchase. Broadband providers will offer online account portals to their customers to make each customer’s label easily accessible to the customer in such portals.
Broadband providers are not required to create labels for consumers who are on old service plans that are not offered to new customers anymore.
All broadband Internet access service providers—either fixed or mobile—are required to display the same label format. Providers must identify the name of the service plan at the top of the label. Each plan must also have a unique identifier, a letter-number combination identifying whether it is fixed or mobile, the provider's FCC Registration Number, and a provider-chosen string of precisely 15 alphanumeric characters uniquely identifying the specific plan within the broadband provider’s offerings.
A provider must display on the label, at a minimum, the base monthly price for the stand-alone broadband service offering. If a provider displays an introductory rate on the label, it must also display the rate that applies following the introductory period and clearly disclose either the length of the introductory period or the date on which the introductory period will end. Providers must display only the “retail” monthly broadband price, meaning the price a provider offers broadband to consumers before applying any discounts such as those for paperless billing, automatic payment (autopay), or any other discounts. Providers that offer a discount for consumers who commit to a contract term must display the length of that term on the label.
Consumers must be made aware of whether the price identified on the label requires the consumer to commit to service for a specified period of time and that if the consumer decides to switch to another provider or terminate service altogether, they may be subject to an early termination fee. The provider must also disclose any applicable
early termination fees if the consumer cancels the service before the end of the contract.
The label must display recurring monthly charges the provider imposes on top of the base price, along with any one-time fees the consumer must pay at the time of purchase. Providers must list all recurring monthly fees. These fees include all charges that providers impose at their discretion (i.e., charges not mandated by the government). Providers must give each fee a simple, accurate, easy-to-understand name, thus enabling consumers to understand which charges are part of the provider’s rate structure, and which derive from government assessments or programs. Providers must list fees such as monthly charges associated with regulatory programs and fees for the rental or leasing of a modem and other network connection equipment. The label must include the name and cost of each one-time fee assessed by the provider when the consumer signs up for service. This section will identify one-time fees such as a charge for purchasing a modem, gateway, or router; an activation fee; a deposit; an installation fee; or a charge for late payment. The provider must also identify any one-time fees the provider will impose if the customer cancels their broadband service before the end of a contract term (e.g., an early termination fee) and provide a link to a full explanation of when such a fee is triggered. Finally, providers must disclose any charges or reductions in service for any data used in excess of the amount included in the plan. They must also identify the increment of additional data, e.g., “each additional 50GB,” if applicable, and disclose any additional charges once the consumer exceeds the monthly data allowance.
Providers are also required to list taxes that will apply and that they may vary depending on location.
Speed and Latency
Labels will disclose providers' typical upload and download speeds and typical latency. Fixed broadband service providers that choose to participate in the FCC's Measuring Broadband America (MBA) program(1) may disclose their results as a sufficient representation of the actual performance their customers can expect to experience for the relevant speed tier. Fixed broadband service providers that do not participate may use the methodology from the MBA program to measure actual performance, or may disclose actual performance based on internal testing, consumer speed test data, or other data regarding network performance, including reliable, relevant data from third-party sources. Mobile broadband service providers that have access to reliable information on network performance may disclose the results of their own or third-party testing. Those mobile broadband service providers that do not have reasonable access to such network performance data may disclose a Typical Speed Range (TSR) representing the range of speeds and latency that most of their consumers can expect, for each technology and service tier offered.
Link to Network Management Practices
Providers must include in the label a link to their network management practices like blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Separate FCC rules require all broadband providers to publicly disclose accurate information regarding their network management practices. A network management practice is reasonable if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband internet access service.
Link to Affordable Connectivity Program Information
All providers must include a link in their labels to information about the ACP and qualification requirements, and indicate whether the provider is participating in the ACP. The label must say: "The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a government program to help lower the monthly cost of internet service. To learn more about the ACP, including to find out whether you qualify, visit www.affordableconnectivity.gov."
The format for the broadband consumer label resembles the well-known food nutrition label. (Click to enlarge image.)
In addition, providers must make the information included in the label available to the public in a machine-readable format, meaning "data in a format that can be easily processed by a computer without human intervention while ensuring no semantic meaning is lost." Providers will make each label’s information available by providing the information separately in a spreadsheet file format such as .csv. These files will be made available on a provider’s website via a dedicated URL that contains all of a provider’s given labels. Providers will publicize the URL with the label data in transparency disclosures. The FCC believes machine readability will: 1) promote both competition as well as transparency and accountability, 2) allow the FCC to more easily collect data about broadband markets, and 3) make data more easily available for research as well.
Accessibility for People with Disabilities
Broadband consumer labels must be accessible to people with disabilities at all points of sale. The FCC strongly encourages broadband providers to comply with the well-established legal requirements included in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Display in Languages Other Than English
All providers must display online and printed labels in English. But the FCC requires providers to make labels available in any other languages in which the provider markets its services in the United States. The FCC encourages providers to review their translations for context and vernacular language by native-level speakers who work directly with community members to ensure the language is not only accurate, but also easily accessible and understandable to target audiences.
When Will Consumers See the New Labels?
For most providers, the consumer broadband label requirements will kick in six months after the Office of Management and Budget reviews, approves, and gives notice of that approval of the new rules. Providers with 100,000 or fewer customers will have an extra six months to comply with the rules.
Next Steps at the FCC
As part of the new order creating the consumer broadband label rules, the full FCC also tasked its Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) with doing additional work. In the coming weeks, the CGB will:
- Post (an update when necessary) the FCC website a page with a glossary of terms used on the consumer broadband labels.
- Make available on the website resources to guide the creation of a uniform label, including templates and other examples. The initial website should be available no later than thirty days before the label display requirement becomes effective so that providers can include the appropriate FCC link in their labels and use the templates if desired.
- Provide resources that may help providers satisfy the machine-readability requirement, such as sample machine-readable spreadsheet files.
FCC Seeks Additional Input
The FCC received a number of suggestions about the consumer broadband labels; some suggestions were not adopted, but the FCC seeks additional input about them now. These suggestions have to do with accessibility and languages, performance characteristics, service reliability, cybersecurity, network management and privacy, formatting, and whether ISPs should submit label information to the FCC.
Several commenters suggested additional ways to improve the accessibility of the broadband label. The FCC is requiring broadband providers to post information on their websites in an accessible format, and strongly encourages them to use the most current version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Should the FCC be more specific? Commenters should cite the specific WCAG sections they propose the FCC adopt.
Should broadband providers be required to make labels available in languages other than those in which they market their services, such as Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog?
Price Information and Bundles
The FCC's new rules do not require providers to display some information that affects the bottom line price consumers pay each month, such as discounts for paperless billing and for bundling broadband with other services. In future versions of the label, should the FCC require providers to display these discounts and other variables (such as location-specific taxes)? Would a label requirement for bundled services, with a single price for the entire bundle, help consumers?
The FCC recognizes that the speed a customer will experience can vary depending on the consumer’s equipment, how many devices are operating in the household, network congestion, network usage of nearby customers, and the distance to a cell site (for wireless broadband). Are there more appropriate ways to measure speed and latency other than “typical” for purposes of the label disclosure such as average or peak speed and latency. Should the FCC require providers to add another speed metric to the label in addition to typical speed? Commenters should discuss alternative methodologies that would be useful for consumers.
The record in this proceeding demonstrates support for providing service reliability information to consumers. To what extent would adding a reliability measure to the label improve the availability of that information to consumers? How should reliability be represented on a broadband label? Would a metric such as “Network availability = XX.XX% (Y minutes unavailable per month)” be appropriate?
Consumers may find it relevant when comparison shopping whether the broadband service that they are considering is reasonably secure. Should providers be required to disclose at the point of sale information about their cybersecurity practices? Should broadband labels warn consumers if a provider has left certain cyber risks unmitigated by reasonable security measures?
Is a link to a provider's network management practices sufficient or should the label include more specific disclosures about whether the provider engages in blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization? Should network management practices, either in the label or linked, be written in a way that is clear and understandable for non-technical
Interactive Labels and Drop-Down Menus
The FCC seeks comment on whether it should require providers to provide additional information in an interactive label. Could consumers find an interactive label helpful? For example, customers could be able to input their household internet activity and see additional information that would estimate their internet experience under each plan. An interactive label could also include an “expand” option that would provide more detailed information on specific categories of information, such as pricing.
Submitting Labels to the FCC
Several commenters proposed that the FCC give providers the option of submitting labels directly to the FCC/ The FCC seeks comment on whether it should allow providers to do so and whether the FCC should maintain a database of labels and post them on the FCC's website. Alternatively, should the FCC allow providers to seek a hardship waiver from the requirement to display labels on their websites, and only if such waiver is granted, permit them to submit their labels to the FCC?
The FCC seeks input on all these issues. The deadline to file comments is Tuesday, January 17, 2023. Reply comments are due on or before February 14, 2023. For further information, contact Erica H. McMahon, Consumer Policy Division, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, at (202) 418-0346 (voice) or e-mail at [email protected].
For more on broadband transparency, see these articles from the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society:
- What the FCC Wants to Know About ACP Service
- Next Steps on Affordable Connectivity Program Transparency
- The Measuring Broadband America program is an ongoing nationwide performance study of broadband service in the United States that developed out of a recommendation by the National Broadband Plan to improve the availability of information for consumers about their broadband service.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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