The FCC will soon force the nation’s broadband monopolies to be more transparent about exactly how they’re ripping you off.
According to an agency announcement, the FCC voted today to require ISPs provide a “nutrition label” for broadband connections. Under the rule, your ISP would need to clearly highlight any hidden fees, line limitations, usage caps, or other restrictions on your broadband line. ISPs will also be required to disclose the speed and latency of the connections they sell.
“In a grocery store nutrition labels make it easy to compare calories & carbohydrates,” FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel said of the effort. “We need the same simple labels for broadband—so we can compare price, speed & data. No more fees in fine print.”
Hoping to force a little more transparency by the nation’s regional telecom monopolies, the FCC first proposed the idea back in 2016. The proposal provided FDA-style examples of what such nutrition labels would look like for both fixed and mobile broadband connections.
While the Trump FCC abandoned the idea, it was resurrected by Congress as part of the recently-passed infrastructure bill.
The FCC voted today to begin drafting the new rule, with a final vote expected later this year once the FCC has a proper voting majority in place.
U.S. cable and broadband providers have a long history of saddling consumers with a parade of sneaky and unnecessary fees, which help them advertise one rate, then impose significantly higher prices when the bill comes due. One recent Consumer Reports study showed that upwards of 24 percent of consumer cable bills are comprised of bogus fees.
ISPs also have a history of imposing arbitrary and unnecessary limitations on broadband connections, often without informing consumers that they exist.
In 2007, Comcast was caught throttling the connections of all BitTorrent users without informing its customers. In 2014, Verizon Wireless was caught modifying user wireless packets to covertly track them around the Internet—without telling users or letting them opt out.
In 2015, AT&T was fined by the FCC for selling “unlimited” wireless broadband connections that came with significant limits, including invisible usage restrictions that, once crossed, resulted in user connections being heavily throttled for the remainder of the billing cycle.
U.S. broadband providers have been routinely criticized for imposing confusing usage caps and overage fees on fixed broadband lines. These charges serve no technical purpose, but confuse consumers and further help broadband providers jack up advertised broadband rates.
Consumer groups were quick to applaud the agency’s move toward greater transparency.
“Today’s FCC vote is a welcome step forward and a win for consumers,” the Open Technology Institute said in a statement provided to Motherboard. “OTI has long called for truth-in-billing for the broadband industry, which is notorious for keeping customers in the dark. Hidden fees, surprise bills, and dense contracts are familiar problems to anyone who deals with these companies.”
Granted forcing broadband monopolies to be more transparent about how they’re ripping you off doesn’t address the underlying reason they’re ripping you off. Most broadband providers see little real competition and are subject to often-patchy state or federal consumer protection oversight, allowing them to nickel and dime captive customers with relative impunity.
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