An Overview of Broadband Labels, With Guy Benson

Posted: March 15, 2023

Episode Description

Guy Benson, policy director in regulatory affairs at JSI, discusses the importance of broadband labels and gives guidance on how broadband providers can prepare for the FCC’s requirement of the labels in the coming year.


Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

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Carrie Huckeby: It seems most consumer products have a nutrition label these days: restaurant menus, breakfast cereal and our favorite candy bar. And soon broadband service will be no different. My guest, Guy Benson, is the policy director in regulatory affairs at JSI. On this episode of Lead Tennessee Radio to help us understand what a broadband nutrition label is. Welcome, Guy. Thank you for joining me.

Guy Benson: Carrie, I am delighted to be here. Thank you.

Carrie Huckeby: To start the conversation, explain to us who introduced broadband labels and the reasons or reason behind them.

Guy Benson: Sure. Well, so imagine that you’re shopping for a car and every car in every dealership had a different amount of information. One talked about the mileage you could get. Another one talked about what the fee to transfer the car was. And the third one had the actual all-in price. We’ve long had labels that helped enable consumers to compare competing products and make thoughtful and informed purchasing decisions. So similarly and this happened. It began in about 2009, the FCC came up with the concept of having a broadband label to also address the needs of consumers to be able to understand the various service plans available from broadband providers. And so what they did was they enacted transparency rules that required the disclosure of certain broad elements of service plans. Now, since then, it took six years until they actually came up with this idea for a label. And in the second open Internet order, they enhanced and strengthened the pricing transparency rules requiring some specific elements that ISPs had to disclose. Like the full monthly service charge, including promotional and standard rates, all one time and recurring fees, and whether data caps would be imposed, and some other items. And what they said was, “Look, here’s this label template that if you fill in the information in this label, you will have complied with these new extensive transparency rules.” Well, not too late after that, the FCC reversed course, and they basically eliminated the broadband label safe harbor. So that was in 2017. Then what happened? We had the pandemic, and as part of this, the Biden administration passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which did a lot of things, as we know. But one of the things is it directed the FCC to require broadband Internet service providers to basically display in the form of these labels certain information regarding their broadband Internet access service plans.

Carrie Huckeby: So this template is all of the information at this time finalized, what will be required from the broadband providers?

Guy Benson: Basically, the label must include information about pricing, introductory rates, if applicable, including the rate that will be applied after the introductory period. What are the data allowances? Performance metrics and whether the provider participates in the ACP, The Affordable Connectivity Program.

Carrie Huckeby: Okay. It’s certainly a complicated issue.

Guy Benson: There’s a lot. There’s a lot that goes on these.

Carrie Huckeby: Will all ISPs be required to implement these labels? And if so, what kind of timeline are they looking at right now, or is that still up in the air?

Guy Benson: So. Well, another great question. Yes, all ISPs are required to implement these labels, but as I was mentioning earlier, so we still have not had the Office of Management and Budget Review, and then they will publish that review in the Federal Register. So that could come at any time now. I don’t expect it next week, but it could come next month. Once that happens, then there’s two main dates, although for our listeners today, I think that most will probably have fewer than 100,000 subscriber lines. And if that’s the case, then there is a one year implementation period. So we are looking at at least a year, probably a little bit more for those for those folks. Now, the way the subscriber line standard is measured is that the FCC is going to look at your last FCC form 477, and they’re also going to include the customers of all of your affiliates as well. So if you are one of those providers with fewer than 100,000, you will have a one year implementation period. For anybody out there that has more than 100,000 subscriber lines, it’s going to be a six month period.

Carrie Huckeby: So Guy, when I buy a loaf of bread, I may check the carbs or the calories to help me make a buying decision. If I stop in, call or go to my local broadband providers website, what will be the best way for them to present this broadband label information? Is it going to be required at every point of sale, and is it only required at a new sale, or even when I call in about a bill inquiry?

Guy Benson: Right. Well, Carrie, number one, there is a format that the FCC adopted, and that’s why it’s called the broadband label. It resembles the FDA’s nutrition labels. Providers must display the actual label. It can’t be an icon or a link and in close proximity to the associated plan advertisement. So basically, there are time and place considerations that we have to talk about. So in terms of this requirement that the label be presented at the point of sale. So the point of sale is the time at which the consumer views specific broadband plans available to them at their service location. So a lot of times that’s going to be where you get online and you’re like, okay, I need to get some some Internet service for my house. I put in my zip code, I hit enter and then bam, the next page that comes up is going to talk about, you know, available plans. So that’s where the point of sale is required to have this label for each plan. And then the broadband labels that are displayed should be only for services that are currently offered to new customers. So once you no longer offer a plan, even though it’s still being taken advantage of by previous customers, if it’s not available to new customers, then you do not need the label for that anymore.

Guy Benson: Now there are various potential points of sale. The most common one is going to be on a provider’s website, although it also includes any other channels through which the service is sold. So we’ve got the primary advertising web page. Then we have alternative sales channels. It could be an ISP owned retail location, third party owned retail locations, over the phone. And what’s required here is, all of these locations, you can fulfill the requirements by providing a hard copy of the label. But some of them that’s impossible. Like over the phone. Well, how do you do that? And so there is a requirement there that you direct the customer to the place where they can access the label. So you could hand a customer a card with a printed URL or a QR code. Or you could also orally read the entire label to the consumer over the phone. Now that seems a little bit burdensome. So there’s a couple of different ways. But the key here is that whichever way you make sure that the customer has seen and understands that label, you have to document this and the documentation is required to be retained for two years.

Carrie Huckeby: Wow. Okay. So that means adjustments to billing systems, record keeping and all of those good things, right?

Guy Benson: Exactly. And, you know, we’re looking at ways that we can try to automate as much of this as possible.

Carrie Huckeby: So many years ago, I worked in customer service, and I know you went through the plans with the customer and finding out what they needed. So you’re saying that if they come into the office or call, there has to be some documentation that they checked that, yes, they read the card, or they promised to read it later when they go home and look at the website or something like that, right?

Guy Benson: Precisely. And, you know, there is some flexibility at this point in terms of the precise method of documentation. But I think, you know, as long as we just keep in mind, the key is, you know, ensuring the customer is able to compare the plans and then, you know, making sure that we just have some kind of documentation of that. So it could be a form that your customer service representative fills out, and then just makes sure that they store that for two years, that kind of thing.

Carrie Huckeby: All right. So I understand that it is required for every single broadband plan that your company may offer, no matter if it’s 100 megabits or a gig. I know there’s companies out there that do offer different packages. They may have several packages and some may offer other technologies like DSL, fixed wireless. So this plan, or this documentation broadband label, is required for every one of those plans. And a question, if I am in customer service, if I go in to purchase service and I’m interested in a gig only, do I only have to look at that one particular broadband label, or am I required to look at every broadband label for every plan they offer?

Guy Benson: Well, so another great question. So just to be clear, there’s not actually a requirement that the customer look at the label. It’s really that the provider make it available. Okay. But to answer your question, yes, it is required for every plan, no matter the speed. The requirement is actually any service that is a mass market retail service. This includes both residential and business customers. And so the only thing it doesn’t apply to are very kind of particularized enterprise service offerings or special access services which are more tailored and individualized and have kind of negotiated service plans, those types of things. Maybe you have a plan with a hospital or something. Those will not require the labels, but every plan with a different speed that is a mass market retail service is going to require a unique identifier for each of the plans. And as far as I think you mentioned bundles, so the label is for standalone broadband services. And you can link to a bundle on the website if you want to, but there’s no requirement for that. And basically what goes on each label is just going to be, you know, that one service plan in and of itself.

Carrie Huckeby: Okay, well, let’s talk about marketing just a little bit. We talked about point of sales, but if I’m the marketing department, and I’m putting a promo on the back of my magazine, or I’m sending it out on a direct mail piece, how would that be handled, Guy? Would would there be something on the marketing piece that would direct them to the labels, or is that even required in the advertising piece for a broadband company?

Guy Benson: Well, so the key there would be whether or not that would be considered an alternative sales channel. And it’s my assessment that that would not be included. They’re not going to require you in marketing materials to have these labels unless the marketing is done, for example, at your retail location or on your website. That’s where the label requirements will kick in.

Carrie Huckeby: Okay. That’s good to know. So you talked about the comments that are being sent in. What are you hearing from your JSI clients, Guy? Are there concerns? Does everyone feel comfortable with implementing the labels? Are they still figuring out what’s going on there?

Guy Benson: Yep. To all of that. Absolutely. So we think it’s probably a good idea to start getting used to how this is going to operate. But, you know, one of the keys underlying the FCC’s orders here is that the label should remain simple and easy to understand so that folks can make an apples to apples comparison. Now, I think especially small providers are concerned with how to implement some of the point of sale documentation requirements. You know, our clients are almost exclusively small providers. They don’t have complicated compliance departments that they’re able to, you know, spend countless hours on this stuff. So, you know, I think there is concern with the point of sale. And also trying to figure out, you know, how can, as much of this be automated as possible with the unique identifier. It’s like a 15 digit number that needs to be created out of three different pieces. And this documentation that’s required, how can we automate it? So that’s what we’re going to be looking at, helping folks do. And I might also mention at this time, you know, the further notice of proposed rule-making that we mentioned earlier. So JSI filed comments on behalf of our rural clients. And we, you know, had a couple of main points. One is just FCC, please keep in mind the burdens that compliance requirements can have on especially the small and rural providers. But we also specifically suggested that the FCC come up with kind of a standardized PDF template where you just go to this template, and you fill in the information that’s required on each box.

Guy Benson: And you know that if you’ve filled in all the information that you’ve complied with the requirements. Along with that, the FCC is asking about translating these labels into a lot of different languages. And we have suggested that the FCC provide the translation themselves. So that would be easiest for folks. If you could just go online, pull down one of these PDFs, pick the languages that, you know, that are exist in your service area, and then put in the information, you know, one time, and then maybe it copies it to all the other languages and things like that. The other thing is, is with this further notice of proposed rule-making, the FCC has asked, should it require even more comprehensive pricing information? Should it require information on bundled plans? Should labels have like an interactive element to them? Should it include service reliability or performance characteristics? And another one is cybersecurity. The FCC wants to know if carriers should have to put their cybersecurity protocols on these labels. So we say no to all of that. Why should the FCC be seeking to add more requirements to these labels before they’re even been required yet? We still are a ways out until they’re required. So those are some of the things that we’ve been looking at.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, two things I take away from that is all of those extra things that they’re thinking about certainly goes against the idea of having a simple broadband label. That could certainly complicate it up quite a bit, right?

Guy Benson: No, exactly, Carrie. We think that, you know, having it simple means not overloading it with information and making it so complicated because then it defeats the very underlying purpose that everyone agrees is what should be, which is that customers can understand this and make informed decisions.

Carrie Huckeby: And I think the PDF template from the FCC would not only be very helpful to the broadband providers, but as a consumer, if I am changing companies or moving, it would certainly be helpful that they all look alike instead of every company’s broadband label looks a little different. So I can see simplicity there, if they did come out with a template.
Guy Benson: Yes, exactly. And that’s kind of the goal from the beginning with the labels, like I mentioned at the beginning of the program about car dealerships and food nutrition labels. It’s the same thing here. But yes, anything we can do to make it more standardized and more consistent, I think is going to have exactly the impact that you mentioned.

Carrie Huckeby: And although everything is not wrapped in a little bow yet and completely finalized and there are comments still being filed, it is a great idea for the broadband providers to be thinking about this and getting ahead of it, versus being behind and rushing to get it done. And I have talked to several of our members, and they are preparing for it. So they hope to be ahead of the game when the time comes with those timelines. And as you said, most of our members are under that 100,000 customer base. So they do have that year to implement. And I assume the year goes into place, the year timeline, is after the comments are filed and the final ruling comes out.

Guy Benson: Yes. So there will be a publication notice in the Federal Register once the OMB has approved of the paperwork reduction requirements and all of that. And so don’t worry, you’ll know. Folks will know when it’s coming.

Carrie Huckeby: Thank you, Guy. I appreciate your time.

Guy Benson: Thank you so much for having me.

Carrie Huckeby: My guest has been Guy Benson, policy director and regulatory affairs at JSI. You’ve been listening to Lead Tennessee Radio, produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association. Cooperative and independent companies connecting our state’s rural communities and beyond with world class broadband.