Broadband Labels Must Be Simple, Have Comparable Data, Say Industry Observers

When it comes to broadband “nutrition” labels, experts say less is more.

Broadband Labels Must Be Simple, Have Comparable Data, Say Industry Observers
Photo of Ellen Peters, via the University of Oregon

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2022 – Industry experts gave their perspectives on the best ways to implement “nutrition” labels for broadband services and reminded the Federal Communications Commission to keep it simple for consumers.

During the FCC’s second public hearing on broadband consumer labels on Thursday, Ellen Peters, the University of Oregon’s director of the Center for Science and Communication for Research, said that less information is more understandable for the average consumer.

She explained that providing super technical, granular data can leave consumers discouraged and confused, rather than more informed.

“Less information is better and that is especially true for somebody who has less ability, they have less time – they are just less motivated,” Peters said. She explained that even something as simple as units to measure speed – whether that’s megabits per second or gigabits per second – need to be kept consistent to not confuse consumers.

“Do not compare kilobytes to gigabytes,” she said. “Consumers do not know how to do that. You have to do the math for them.”

Peters also suggested that the information be displayed side-by-side so that consumers can compare broadband plans more easily. She also advised that steps be taken to help consumers determine what their own needs are and how they use broadband.

“Help them figure out what kind of a broadband user they are,” Peters said. She explained that gamers, students, those using telehealth, or telecommuting to work all have different broadband needs.

Interactive information

Lorrie Cranor, director of Carnegie University’s Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, which focuses on improving the usability of privacy and security software systems, said regardless of the shape the labels ultimately take, consumers should have some ability to interact with them.

“One of the possibilities that we have today – now that labels do not have to just be on printed paper – is that we could have information that is interactive,” Cranor said.

She compared the situation to nutrition labels found in grocery stores. “If there [is] certain information I am looking for, if it is always in the same place, I may be able to ignore some of the other information. So, with food nutrition labels, if what is important to me is cholesterol, and I do not care about sodium. I can ignore sodium and just focused on cholesterol.

“So, we have the ability to have digital labels where consumers could say, ‘Hey, I am a gamer, this is what I want,’ and just see the information that is going to be most relevant to them,” she said.

Peters emphasized that nearly a third of Americans struggle with numeracy – or the ability to work with and understand numbers. Because of this, even when they are presented with data that reflects cost, speed, and overall value, they may be unable to make an informed decision.

“Good decision making requires more than just a simple understanding of information because consumers also have to understand the meaning of that provided broadband information for their decision,” she said. “If there is a monthly fee of $60 for 300 gigabytes – what does that mean for them?”

“[Consumers] have to be able to understand the meaning of those facts and then have to be able to determine meaningful differences between options.”

The first hearing on broadband nutrition labels was held in March and was designed to determine the effectiveness of the labels. Though that was the first hearing, plans for the initiative were devised in 2015, but the plan was only made mandatory for broadband providers as part of a vote by the FCC in January of 2022.