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FCC looks to 'nutritional labels' for Internet service shopping

FCC looks to 'nutritional labels' for Internet service shopping

Customers shopping for Internet service are a step closer to having access to "nutritional label"-like disclosures that will help them easily compare prices and speed offerings from different providers. 

A government-sanctioned committee last week unveiled a set of sample disclosure forms that Internet service providers, like Comcast or Verizon, would be encouraged to offer potential customers. These disclosure forms would outline prices for stand-alone Internet service, average speed measures, and any network management rules that apply. 

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC) developed two sample forms — one for fixed broadband and one for mobile. The committee also encouraged the FCC to have a graphic designer make sure the disclosure forms — to be featured on companies' main marketing web pages — are easy to understand for consumers. 

"We find that the Committee’s experience with consumer disclosure issues makes it an ideal body to recommend a disclosure format that should be clear and easy to read — similar to a nutrition label — to allow consumers to easily compare the services of different providers," the FCC wrote in its net neutrality rules earlier this year, which set off the process. 

The advisory committee is made up of a number of consumer organizations, telecom industry companies and trade groups, regulators, and advocates for seniors, unions and people with disabilities. 

It unanimously approved the recommendations last week. The FCC published the recommendations on Monday and will have the last word on whether they are acceptable. 

The FCC's net neutrality rules include a number of transparency requirements, including one to force Internet service providers to detail their offerings to customers.

Internet service providers will not be forced to use the forms. But the FCC is encouraging their adoption by giving safe harbor to providers that do use them. The FCC has noted safe harbor from enforcement action does not apply if providers include incorrect or misleading information on the disclosure forms. 

The actual speed offerings for fixed broadband to be included in the disclosure forms will be largely based on the FCC's current Measuring Broadband America (MBA) performance tests. A standardized measurement for mobile broadband has not yet been developed. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recently probed the FCC's push to provide more Internet performance information to the public. 

Individual customers can conduct their own speed tests and Internet providers already disclose much of the information, but the GAO has found there is a lack of standardization.  

The watchdog also found that while the FCC does a good job of testing actual and advertised Internet speeds through the MBA program, the reports could be hard to read because they are not targeted at consumers.