Hidden fees plague broadband customers —
“ISPs are notorious for keeping customers in the dark,” bill supporter says.
Internet service providers could be required to release “broadband nutrition labels” with detailed information about prices, speeds, and data caps under legislation introduced by US Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.).
Craig’s “Broadband Consumer Transparency Act” would bring back expanded transparency requirements that were eliminated when then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai repealed net neutrality rules and deregulated the broadband industry in December 2017.
The bill “would require straightforward disclosures in an easily understandable format to help consumers better understand the services they are purchasing and protect against hidden fees and sub-standard Internet performance,” Craig said in a press release yesterday. The press release said the bill “would require sellers of broadband services to provide the following information to all consumers”:
- Price: Price points, including various charges like overage, equipment, early termination and administrative fees
- Data Allowances: This is the carrier-defined plan limit after which consumers will face some consequence, such as additional charges or slowed data speeds
- Performance: Broadband speed and other performance metrics
The bill is simple and barely a page long. It directs the FCC to adopt “regulations to promote and incentivize the widespread adoption of broadband consumer labels” like the ones described in a public notice issued by the Obama-era FCC in April 2016. The bill would give the FCC one year to issue these rules.
Technology ISPs “notorious” for hiding key details
The bill’s language saying the FCC must “promote and incentivize” adoption of broadband labels makes it sound like they would be optional for ISPs. But Craig said her bill would “require” the disclosures, and the bill text could be updated to make sure it matches the intent.
The Obama-era broadband labels included monthly charges, data caps and overage charges, hardware rental fees, activation and installation fees, early termination fees, taxes and government-related fees, “other monthly fees,” typical speeds both upstream and downstream, latency, and packet loss. Here’s what they looked like:
The Obama-era FCC rules made the broadband nutrition labels optional but required ISPs to release the information online if they chose not to use the labels.
“Internet service providers are notorious for keeping customers in the dark,” Joshua Stager, deputy director at New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in a press release yesterday. “Hidden fees, surprise bills, and dense contracts are familiar problems to anyone that has dealt with these companies. Just this week, a report detailed how Comcast hides speed information from customers when they sign up for service.”
Stager was referring to our report about how Comcast’s website hides upload speeds until customers complete most of the checkout process and enter a valid credit card number. He also cited his own organization’s Cost of Connectivity report, saying it showed that “US Internet providers often bury information about service and price amid confusing contracts, hidden fees, and convoluted billing schemes,” and a Consumer Reports study finding “that cable companies added $450 in hidden fees to the average customer’s bill [each year].”
The Open Technology Institute has been calling for broadband truth-in-labeling rules for over a decade.
“Congresswoman Craig’s bill cuts through this confusion by creating a ‘broadband nutrition label’ that clearly discloses the cost and terms of internet plans,” Stager said. “This truth-in-billing legislation is urgently needed as millions of people rely on the Internet to work, learn, and live during the pandemic. Congress should pass this legislation as soon as possible. People need to know what they are paying for.”
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Technology FCC could act first—if it gets another Democrat
The House of Representatives approved a broadband nutrition label measure as part of a larger bill last year, but it didn’t pass in the Senate. Passage would be more likely now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress.
Even if the bill doesn’t pass Congress this time around, the Democratic-led FCC could bring the disclosure requirements back. But no major regulatory changes will come out of the FCC until President Biden nominates another Democrat to break the 2-2 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans.
FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel supported the transparency requirements, net neutrality rules, and common-carrier regulation of ISP. If Biden makes her the permanent chair, she is likely to reinstate regulations repealed by Pai once Democrats have an FCC majority.
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