Broadband “nutrition” labels: A healthy start, nutritionists needed

Yesterday the FCC’s rule requiring internet service providers to provide broadband “nutrition” labels went into effect. Based on the idea and appearance of food nutrition labels the FCC’s labels are meant to provide consumers with the basic information about internet service offerings in their area. Information includes pricing, available download and upload speeds, latency, data caps, and other basic information about a service offering.

The labels, required in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), are a healthy start for informing consumers. But this information alone doesn’t help consumers choose the service that fits their needs. They can look at the label on a cereal box or loaf of bread and see what percentage of protein or sugar or fiber a serving size will comprise of the daily recommended allowance for a standard diet. There’s context. 

But even food labels fall short of helping individual consumers understand the health effects of a serving size of protein or sugar or fiber. Nutritionists and dietitians are needed to diagnose, to educate and provide guidance to patients on which foods better serve their health needs and portion size. Everyone is different.

Last month I moderated a panel at Connected America that discussed broadband speed standards and the impact of the broadband labels entered the discussion. I took an impromptu audience poll about whether the labels would benefit customers, specifically affordability. The audience-industry folks, some of whom may be a wee bit cynical-did not react positively. 

I was a little surprised. Maybe because I have a different opinion. I think the labels are a good idea. But should be improved upon over time. 

When thinking about how to communicate about how technology works, I think of my octogenarian parents. 

(My poor parents. They continue to be frustrated by the fact that I once served as North Carolina’s state broadband director, but I can’t diagnosis over the phone why they are getting their emails on their desktop but not their iPad. Admittedly I’m no technologist, but I’ve figured out the basics.)

During one visit my dad asked whether he should stick with the internet service provided by the cable company or whether he should switch to a new FTTH service being offered by a regional telephone company. We decided to compare speeds and pricing. Nowhere on his cable bill could I find the download or upload speeds he was paying for. For this reason alone, I’m in favor of the FCC’s labels. 

Now, if the speeds were included on my dad’s bill would he know what they mean or how they benefit him? Would he know whether he was paying a fair price for those speeds or that capacity? 

For download speeds, he understands that the bigger the number the better. But beyond that he doesn’t understand what higher upload speeds get him, how latency affects his experience, and whether he is paying a fair price. So, while the labels are helpful in presenting important information in a clear way, do they help the customer figure out what service is right for them? Who the heck knows what latency is anyway? 

Like my parents, most customers use different terms than their internet providers use to describe their experience. Terms like: “good” or “bad” or “it goes down a lot” or “my Zoom constantly freezes” or “it takes forever to open the pictures you send of my incredibly adorable grandchildren”. 

Customers often know what they need their internet service to do—stream movies, gaming, video calls, banking, sales, etc. But how do customers accurately determine whether the internet service offerings available to them will serve their needs without appreciating the significance of Mbps?

Several years ago, pre-BEAD, NTIA’s BroadbandUSA created slick brochures that equated use cases with minimum speed requirements and they published a nice glossary of key terms. The FCC also produced, although less visually appealing, a customer-friendly guide that matched applications with speed thresholds. Some internet service providers offer rudimentary help on their websites. Again, while helpful these efforts don’t fill the role of a broadband “nutritionist”. 

M-Lab has undertaken an interesting research initiative that may lead to better customer education called the Internet Quality Barometer (IQB). At their April community call M-Lab and partners Domos and Cloudfare offered ways to measure the characteristics of customer’s internet quality from the user’s perspective (what a great phrase). 

Maybe what I’m suggesting can’t be transcribed on to a label or brochure. Maybe it’s a job for a digital navigator or technical assistant. To fully evaluate the quality of service and match that to a customer’s needs may take additional resources and different approaches to educating consumers. Requiring these new labels in an easily readable format will help many customers. And this information should be readily available—basic consumer etiquette and provider responsibility. They are a good starting point. But it’s not enough to put numbers and technical specs on a page. Collectively we should continue to improve how we communicate to customers what reliable, affordable and necessary internet service looks like. From their perspective. Mom and Dad will appreciate you.   

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