FCC Takes Wraps Off Broadband Transparency Labels

Will provide safe harbor for Open Internet transparency mandates

The FCC Monday unveiled its online broadband network management fees "nutrition" labels, which  fixed and mobile ISPs can use to meet the transparency requirements of the FCC's network neutrality rules.

The labels must be available at point of sale, which means on the Web site or, if in a store, available for perusal on a tablet or computer or other device. They are not mandatory, but if done correctly will serve as a safe harbor signaling they are in compliance with the FCC's transparency rules.

The format mimics that of a nutrition label (see photo, which shows only a portion of the fixed broadband label), includes at least 17. There are also a more than a half dozen links, including a contact link to the FCC, a link to file a complaint with the FCC and links to privacy policies, details on network management, pricing policies in addition to the info on the label itself about everytyhing from early termination fees and activiation fees to speed and performance, data limits, modem lease fees and additional network services.

“These labels provide consumers clarity about the broadband service they are purchasing, not only helping them to make more informed choices but also preventing surprises when the first bill arrives,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler who spoke at the unveiling Monday (April 4) at the FCC. “Customers deserve to know the price they will actually pay for a service and to be fully aware of other components such as data limits and performance factors before they sign up for service.”

"If you are going to get competition, competition, competition, you need information, information, information," said Wheeler, adding: "Hidden fees have no place to hide."

He also said it was important to get that transparency without intrusive regulation. He also pointed out that the labels were the result of unanimous agreement between consumer groups an industry.

Also on hand was Rich Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. At the FCC's request, CFPB "I commend Chairman Wheeler and the FCC for bringing new transparency to the broadband market, which will help people understand what they are getting before they sign up," added Cordray.

Cordray likened the labels to the "know before you owe" mortgage disclosures bureau created, and said it was important for broadband comparisons to be apples to apples. He also said the CFPB approached the FCC about these labels some five years ago. Cordray said there was interest from the FCC at that time--which would have been under former chairman Julius Genachoowski and the previous net neutarlity rules (the transparency mandates were the only part of those rules not remanded by the court), but that it did not happen, "for a lot of reasons"--he did not elaborate--including the newness of the CFPB at the time.

The labels were unanimously recommended by the members of the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC), whose membership includes cable and wireless ISPs as well as members of civil society. CAC chair Debra Berlyn said the disclosure is "far easier on the eyes" thanks to the CFPB efforts.

The labels won't become an official safe harbor until the Office of Management and Budget signs off on the additional info requirements of the FCC's enhanced transparency rules, but the FCC is endorsing them and ISPs can start using them anytime they want.

"It represents broad consensus among all CAC members, of which CTA is a member," said a Consumer Technology Association spokesperson.