Broadband Nutrition Labels and Deployment See Renewed Focus in Washington

New broadband nutrition labels required by the FCC will provide transparency about  providers’ broadband services, helping consumers make informed choices.

Picture the back of a can of food. When you examine the nutrition label, you know exactly what ingredients are included as well as sugar content, the number of calories, the amount of sodium and other nutritional information. Now imagine shopping for new broadband services for your mobile or fixed internet service needs.

What if you could quickly look at a label for broadband services that told you exactly what you were getting, not just what was being promoted? What if you could see how these services match up with competing services? That is precisely what the FCC is working on this year.

What’s in a Label?

As a result of the bipartisan infrastructure law Congress recently passed, the FCC proposed new rules requiring broadband providers to supply point-of-sale labels similar to the nutrition labels consumers see on food. They allow consumers to easily see and understand what their broadband services include, helping them make informed choices. The goal is to create transparency regarding providers’ introductory rates, fees, monthly prices, performance, data allowances, network management practices and more.

When the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed, so did the requirement calling for providers to make accurate, easy-to-understand consumer information about their broadband services available to consumers. The thought behind the broadband nutrition labels is to help consumers quickly comparison shop by being able to see factors such as typical speeds upstream or downstream, data allowances, latency and whether app-specific or subscriber-triggered network management practices are in place.

Currently, two types of labels are being reviewed. They are based on voluntary ones previously approved in a 2016 FCC Public Notice. The first is a fixed broadband label, and the second is a mobile broadband label (see samples below).

The FCC approved voluntary labels in 2016, including a fixed broadband label (left) and a mobile broadband label (right).
 
 

What’s the Process?

The bipartisan infrastructure law required the FCC to adopt rules within one year and conduct public hearings as the existing labels change and are updated. The comment period is closed, and the hearings are underway (the most recent was in early April). As with any new rulemaking, it will take some time to implement the final rules and trigger the requirements.

Notably, the FCC is trying to determine whether significant changes have occurred in the broadband marketplace since the FCC approved the original labels in 2016 and whether changes in the content of the titles were necessary. The agency aims to establish clear rules on where the tags must be displayed and the enforcement mechanisms needed to ensure that consumers are provided with truthful information.

How will this affect broadband providers’ multifamily owners’ work in the months ahead? Will there be any differences for smaller providers? What about companies that offer white-labeled services? Stay tuned to the FCC for further developments on broadband labeling.

NTIA, FCC Activities

Much of the work done over the past 18 months required bipartisan cooperation because of the current makeup of the FCC. As of this writing, Democratic FCC nominee Gigi Sohn has yet to be confirmed by the full Senate, which leaves the FCC tied with two Democrats and two Republicans, meaning any controversial issue is unlikely to be considered or adopted. This leaves significant policy fights in limbo.

As discussed before, the most high-profile matter likely to be addressed if/when Sohn is confirmed is the fight to reimpose Obama-era net neutrality regulations. Proponents, including FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Sohn, believe the rules are necessary to maintain an open internet and prevent broadband providers from blocking or throttling web traffic. Providers, among others, consider the regulations unnecessary and believe they will harm the marketplace. Given the heat of the rhetoric on this topic throughout the Sohn confirmation process, it is certain that whenever the FCC moves to consider these rules, the debate will be vigorous.

Washington is also focusing on broadband deployment issues, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is aggressively working to create a framework and rules for distributing billions of dollars from the bipartisan infrastructure package. Of particular importance to the multifamily industry is the $42.5 billion for the newly established federal grant called the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and the ability of low-income apartment communities to access the funds as Congress directed.

Congress specifically made low-income apartment communities eligible for the funds to deploy wired or Wi-Fi broadband infrastructure or provide reduced-cost service to residents. Getting funds to these properties is critical to ensuring that low-income renters have access to reliable, high-speed broadband, which has been an incredible challenge with aging or obsolete infrastructure in place at older, smaller and lower-income properties where it may be challenging for property owners or providers to make expensive upgrades. This level of federal funding is historic and has the potential to be a real game-changer in the lives of millions of low-income renters.

The NTIA is set to release preliminary BEAD guidance to states and local jurisdictions in the coming months. Exact timing on when dollars will begin to support deployment is unclear. Still, many expect it to slide into 2023. The multifamily industry is watching the process closely and encouraging NTIA. Local grantees use accurate broadband maps and data from several sources to accurately show where multifamily properties are unserved and desperately in need of service, and to ensure flexibility in technology and other programmatic requirements so that full broadband service is deployed to meet the needs of today and tomorrow.

 

Kevin Donnelly is vice president of government affairs, technology and strategic initiatives for the National Multifamily Housing Council and can be reached at kdonnelly@nmhc.org. Valerie M. Sargent is a multifamily speaker, trainer, and executive consultant and is the multifamily news correspondent for Broadband Communities. Contact her at valerie@bbcmag.com. For more information, visit www.nmhc.org, www.bbcmag.com, or www.valeriemsargent.com.

Kevin Donnelly
Valerie M. Sargent

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