FCC orders ISPs to display broadband "nutrition labels" with all charges and limits

Hidden fees and unexpected rate hikes have become an expected part of Americans’ Internet, cable TV and phone bills, but The FCC just passed a rule this can make this much less common. Broadband providers will now have to “prominently” display a “nutrition label” clearly stating all charges, restrictions and limitations for any plan you’re considering.

“Our rules will require broadband nutrition labels to be displayed in full when a consumer makes a purchase decision. This means consumers will have simple, easy-to-read facts about price, speed, data allowances and other aspects of high-speed Internet service up front,” said chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying the decision.

The labels look like familiar food labels, and for good reason (besides being “iconic”). With broadband providers, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile and then slowly take it all the way to the Supreme Court if they think it’s more profitable that way.

So the labels must be completely standard, machine-readable and displayed “on the main purchase pages that suppliers have online. That means they can’t be buried in multiple clicks or reduced to a link or icon that the user might miss.” They also need to be easily accessible on demand after someone signs up.

An example of a broadband “nutrition label” with important statistics on it. Image Credits: FCC

On the label you can see here are all the important statistics you need to know about your potential internet connection:

  • Monthly price and contract duration
  • Will this price change after a certain period and to what will it change
  • Full list of monthly and one-time fees and early termination fee
  • Whether the company participates in the Affordable Connectivity and Eligibility Link Program
  • “Typical” download and upload speeds and latency
  • Data cap and price above that cap
  • Links to network management (eg zero rating and content blocking) and privacy policies

Because it’s all published clearly and in the same format across suppliers, anyone can look at two of these labels and, like comparing two brands of cereal, decide which one is right for them. Not because of glossy advertising or a misleading promotional price, but because they can see that the right numbers are higher or lower than the competition.

The idea bounced around for a while, but the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act made it possible to get it to the finish line. It will be some time before they are required by law, however: an FCC spokesman explained that the rules must first be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, then published in the Federal Register, and from then on, broadband providers will they have six months to comply, or one year if they are younger.

It’s a lot of red tape, sure, but chances are ISPs will get on board that early instead of taking it all the way down. It was trending in that direction after many setbacks about a decade ago.

The labels themselves may change slightly over time, just like nutrition labels (eg separating types of fat and sugars). More and better information will go on the labels depending on what the FCC hears from customers and the industry:

“That’s why the agency is also launching further rulemaking today that asks how to include more price and discount data on the label itself, how to measure the reliability of the service, and how to make broadband nutrition labels even more affordable,” she concluded.

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