FCC Revisits Transparency 'Nutrition Label' For Broadband

from the making-it-clear-Comcast-has-all-the-power dept

For years we’ve noted how broadband providers impose all manner of bullshit fees on your bill to drive up the cost of service post sale. They’ve also historically had a hard time being transparent about what kind of broadband connection you’re buying. As was evident back when Comcast thought it would be a good idea to throttle all upstream BitTorrent traffic (without telling anybody), or AT&T decided to cap the usage of its “unlimited” wireless users (without telling anybody), or Verizon decided to modify user packets to track its customers around the internet (without telling anybody).

Back in 2016 the FCC eyed the voluntary requirement that broadband providers be required to provide a sort of “nutrition label” for broadband. The idea was that this label would clearly disclose speeds, throttling, limitation, sneaky fees, and all the stuff big predatory ISPs like to bury in their fine print (if they disclose it at all). This was the example image the FCC circulated at the time:

The idea never fully came to fruition under Obama-era FCC boss Tom Wheeler, and was scuttled by the Trump FCC for what should be obvious reasons. Biden’s FCC is now thinking about voting to revisit the idea:

“FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel is finally moving ahead with a vote planned for Jan. 27 on ?a proposal to establish simple-to-understand broadband labels, whereby internet providers would disclose accurate information about prices, introductory rates, data allowances, and broadband speeds,? she wrote in a blog post Wednesday.”

The problem, of course, is that the FCC is currently (and quite intentionally) vote gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners thanks to the rushed appointment of Trump ally Nathan Simington last year, and the GOP (read: AT&T, Comcast and Verizon) effort to block or at least delay the appointment of Biden FCC nominee Gigi Sohn. It’s no guarantee that GOP Commissioners like Brendan Carr would ever sign off on such a plan, given he rarely wanders out of synchronized lockstep with the interests of companies like AT&T, Comcast or Verizon (who prefer less transparency for obvious reasons).

If the proposal mirrors the Wheeler one, it will be voluntary…meaning ISPs could just ignore it. That’s likely to get buried in coverage. The other problem, as some Twitter observers were quick to note, is that a label transparently informing you that you’re being ripped off isn’t of much use if you’re one of the 83 million Americans currently living under a broadband monopoly. As in, it’s maybe good to have more transparency into what you’re buying, but its value is limited if you have no alternative ISPs to switch to once gifted with that knowledge:

Having actual competition in many of these markets would force ISPs to avoid nickel and diming customers in the first place. In fact, customer service complaints, privacy violations, net neutrality violations, slow speeds, and high prices would all miraculously improve if ISPs faced a meaningful, competitive penalty for them. But with so many U.S. residents living under a monopoly (usually Comcast or Charter), there’s simply no penalty. Tack on regulatory capture and a corrupt Congress, and penalties for bad behavior of any kind are hard to come by if you’re a giant regional telecom monopoly.

This comes back to my complaint that even well intentioned U.S. telecom regulators never seem willing to target the real root of the U.S. broadband problem: regional monopolization and the state and federal corruption that allows it. Not only do regulators not take aim at this problem, they’ll routinely never mention it. You’ll routinely watch U.S. regulators and politicians (and by proxy much of the press) talk vaguely about the “digital divide” or “homework gap” as this entirely-causation-free thing, but they’ll just completely ignore acknowledging that the underlying problem has been caused by letting telecom giants run amok for 30 years, crushing healthy competition underfoot.

This sort of “discursive capture,” as academics like Victor Pickard call it, is a sort of side effect companion of regulatory capture. If you simply refuse to acknowledge that rampant monopolization, mindless consolidation, and limited competition are the core problems (and in the case of U.S. broadband that’s pretty much indisuptable), you don’t have to embrace policies that challenge the politically powerful and actually address the problem. So what you wind up getting are policymakers who just throw more money at the problem, or apply policy band aids that don’t address the underlying dysfunction.

We won’t fix U.S. broadband until we confront the regional monopolies and duopolies, and the state and federal corruption that shield them from accountability. But a company like AT&T isn’t just politically powerful in DC (it routinely is literally allowed to write state and federal law), they’re bone-grafted to our domestic surveillance apparatus, allowing them to generally (with only the smallest of occasional exemption) face no accountability for thirty-five years of anti-consumer, anti-competitive behavior or endless efforts to rip off the federal government.

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Comments on “FCC Revisits Transparency 'Nutrition Label' For Broadband”

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7 Comments
Ceyarrecks (profile) says:

uh, huh,...

"Transparency" I do not think that word means what /they/ think it means.

Also, as the "Food" Industry already accomplished, the Incumbent Carriers just will do more lobbing[read: bride, threaten, manipulate those in leadership positions] for the inclusion of the term "Natural Ingredients," with ZERO reference of what that is a "natural" ingredient of,… could be "natural" Donkey Urine, or "natural" Bovine Feces that you are EATING; They mean, it is–"natural;" they made no changes to the urine or feces, it was direct from the animal’s… body, so is good, riiiiiight?

Thus, NOTHING will change for the benefit of the end-user, regardless of what "ingredients" are displayed.

Toro (profile) says:

This line though

"what you wind up getting are policymakers who just throw more money at the problem, "

Which is to say telecoms complain about how onerous the slightest regulation is and then get the lobby to write in to bills the government giving them stupid large sums of money to be just a little less asshole.

Then they take the money and don’t actually be any less of an asshole

PaulT (profile) says:

"Back in 2016 the FCC eyed the voluntary requirement that broadband providers be required to provide a sort of "nutrition label" for broadband. The idea was that this label would clearly disclose speeds, throttling, limitation, sneaky fees, and all the stuff big predatory ISPs like to bury in their fine print (if they disclose it at all)."

In reality, Tic Tacs are allowed to advertise themselves as sugar free in the US because even though the main ingredient is sugar, because each "serving" is so small it doesn’t reach the threshold that makes that claim technically false under law. So, they can basically sell sugar pills claiming there’s no sugar in them and they’re not breaking any law.

I’d suggest not adopting a model that is already being widely abused in the industry you’re trying to emulated, but obviously the people suggesting this have a historical reason to want to be the abusers.

"As in, it’s maybe good to have more transparency into what you’re buying, but its value is limited if you have no alternative ISPs to switch to"

I see the same faulty argument all the time in healthcare arguments. Sure, forcing providers to provide you a price list for an elective procedure you need might be a good thing. But, if all the cheap options are "out of network" or you need to be taken into hospital unconscious, it’s next to useless and certainly not an alternative to healthcare reform that would ensure that people don’t get a bill of any kind, as per many other countries. Yet, some people pretend that such a "free market" solution is a panacea for all of the ills facing them.

Making sure that ISPs are up front with their fees in ways in which they can be easily compared is a good thing, but it’s not a replacement for ensuring that people have an actual choice to begin with. Again, like other countries – there are ISPs where I live that occasionally pull some shady tactics. But, if I see that with my own ISP, I have a multitude of options to switch to.

Pseudonymous Coward says:

As others have already pointed out, transparency requirements are not a substitute for robust competition. But that doesn’t mean they’re inherently worthless.

One advantage of requiring consistent, accurate pricing information is that it makes it much easier to perform comparative analysis.

Requiring the provision of pricing information in a common format would make it much easier for the FCC to make direct comparisons across different providers. And it could also conduct more sophisticated analyses: it could, for example, look at how pricing varies with factors like the number of competitors – generating hard evidence of the impact of monopolisation.

Done well, comparative analysis can also be a really powerful tool for driving better behaviour. Investors tend not to like seeing their companies perform poorly in rankings, and will often begin to exert pressure on execs to do better (or at least look better) on published metrics.

Of course, the key words there are "done well", and that’s by no means straightforward. The most useful metrics are often the ones that are most difficult to measure. The wrong mix of metrics can create perverse incentives for companies to focus on delivering better numbers, rather than the actual better service you want.

And there’s always the possibility that companies will just lie about their performance. Particularly if the consequences for doing so are minimal/non-existent.

Forcing companies to provide consistent, accurate pricing information is only a very small first step. But it is an important one that might pave the way for better interventions in the future.

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